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More TV air time spent on 2017 general election than previous poll, but little depth

As ballots are being counted for the lower house race, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (center) responds to an interview in front of a large number of reporters at the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Oct. 22, 2017. (Mainichi)

Hours of television coverage relating to the recent House of Representatives election -- which resulted in a landslide victory for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) -- far surpassed the hours broadcasters spent covering the previous lower house poll, but experts say the quality was far from sufficient.

Meanwhile, at least one senior executive at a commercial broadcaster expressed pride for having "provided viewers information with which to make their decisions" about various political candidates.

General election-related programming televised in terrestrial broadcasts by public broadcaster NHK and the five Tokyo-based commercial broadcasters between the official start of campaigning on Oct. 10 to voting day on Oct. 22 totaled 84 hours and 43 minutes. This was more than double the 38 hours and 21 minutes of election-related coverage during the previous general election campaign period in 2014.

The Mainichi Shimbun tallied data provided by TV-monitoring company M Data Co. on programs relating to the 2014 and 2017 lower house elections. Official election broadcasts by parties and candidates as well as political party commercials were excluded.

The majority of the increase in election-related broadcast times was attributed to informational and tabloid programs, triggered by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's sudden announcement on Sept. 25 that she was launching a national political party named the Party of Hope. The media followed and reacted to every move Koike made, with election-related broadcasts by informational and tabloid shows in the 15 days leading up to Oct. 10 reaching 123 hours.

After Koike told reporters she would be "eliminating" certain Democratic Party (DP) members from joining her new party -- despite then DP leader Seiji Maehara's promise that all DP lawmakers would be absorbed by the Party of Hope -- she and her party lost support and momentum, making it appear as though TV coverage of the hoopla had settled down. But ultimately, informational and tabloid programing devoted to the 2017 general election after campaigning kicked off took up 43 hours and 27 minutes of airtime -- approximately 10 times the 4 hours and 23 minutes the genre devoted to 2014 general election topics.

Experts, however, are critical of the content of the recent broadcasts.

"There was barely any in-depth analysis of the points of contention, which was what we had hoped for," says Yoshihiro Oto, a professor at Sophia University's Department of Journalism who analyzes media reports on national elections. "Much of the coverage merely skimmed the surface of the various candidates' platforms."

Another professor in the same department, Hiroaki Mizushima, says that in the 2012 House of Representatives election, in which the LDP took back the government, broadcasters did investigative reporting; for example, the media reported from the U.S. and South Korea on the Trans-Pacific Partnership to verify the claims being made by candidates. However, Mizushima says, "investigative reporting has pretty much disappeared, and news has been created using reports from electoral districts that have gathered popular attention, and about the use of the internet in election campaigns and the voting age being lowered from 20 to 18 -- which are issues not closely tied to policy -- since around last year's House of Councillors election."

This state of affairs shows up in the numbers, too. Broadcasts featuring policy and other points of debate increased approximately 1.6 times from the 2014 lower house election to 4 hours and 53 minutes, but much of it was explanatory presentations of each party's policies. There was hardly any reporting from the ground, or attempts to verify whether policies being promoted by parties were feasible.

Reports about electoral districts that had attracted public attention jumped about three times from the 2014 election to 14 hours and 41 minutes. One employee at a commercial broadcaster says, "Viewership ratings don't go up when we do in-depth policy analyses, which is why informational programs showed a strong tendency to feature the drama surrounding Koike and other female candidates who captured the public's attention, like one who allegedly engaged in an extramarital affair and another who was caught screaming epithets at her secretary."

The day before the lower house was dissolved and a snap general election was called in 2014, the ruling LDP sent a notice to NHK and five other Tokyo-based broadcasters requesting "fair and neutral" reporting on the election, including the selection of guests on their programs and how much time they were allotted to speak, and the content of interviews of people on the street. There was at least one commercial broadcaster that cut on-the-street interviews altogether out of its programs.

According to Mizushima, such interviews were few in number, but did make a comeback in the latest election campaign period. However, Mizushima points out, most of the interviews were more about whether there was a significant purpose to calling a snap election, rather than on the policies at stake. Mizushima believes that the lack of interviews on specific policies is evidence that the effects of the LDP's 2014 "request" notice still linger.

Meanwhile, a source who works on informational programs at a commercial broadcaster says, "In 2014, there was already a tendency to recoil from covering politics, because we had few staff with sufficient experience in it, and we would have a hard time dealing with political parties if they complained about our coverage. This time, I didn't hear about any pressure from the LDP, so it was easier to report."

The latest general election was the first national election since a committee at the Broadcasting Ethics & Program Improvement Organization (BPO), a third-party organization set up by NHK and commercial broadcasters, released a statement about election coverage in February. The statement declared that BPO members sought "qualitative fairness," in the form of factual reporting without bias and offering critiques based on explicit grounds, over "quantitative fairness," such as equal time allotted to each party.

Still, Sophia University's Mizushima said a program broadcast by NHK on the night of Oct. 21 -- the eve of the election -- was problematic for what he saw as its skewed focus on the LDP. It was a special following eight party leaders throughout their 12 days of campaigning. Some 30 percent, or 22 minutes, of the 70-minute program was dedicated to the LDP. Meanwhile, the program gave 12 minutes to the Party of Hope, and 8 minutes to the LDP's junior coalition partner, Komeito.

"It's unclear how NHK guarantees 'qualitative fairness.' NHK should explain the reasoning behind their efforts to ensure fairness," Mizushima pointed out. "The distribution of air time clearly favored the LDP. There was no other broadcaster that spent as much time as NHK on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. I get the impression that NHK has further swung in favor of the ruling parties than before."

In reference to its allotment of time to certain parties, NHK Senior Director Hiroshi Araki explains that NHK uses the number of seats held by the party before the election as a point of reference, insisting that the public broadcaster has maintained fairness in its election coverage. "We make comprehensive decisions to ensure balance. The parties had differing opinions on the political challenges they faced, and we provided viewers with easy-to-understand explanations on the parties' various positions."

According to a source involved with NHK, it was in 2005 -- around the time that then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi called a snap general election over the privatization of the postal service -- that NHK began to earmark air time based on the number of seats held by a party. The source says that there was pressure from the LDP, and in turn, NHK executives called on those making programs not to give parties with few seats more air time than parties with more seats. At the same time, the source says that they refer to the number of votes both ruling and opposition parties got in the previous lower house election, and take measures so that the total time spent covering opposition parties exceed that spent on the ruling parties.

The aforementioned NHK program spent a total of 32 minutes on the ruling LDP, Komeito, and the Party for Japanese Kokoro, which expressed its support for the Abe administration, while it spent a total of 35 minutes on the remaining five parties.

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