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As virus fears grow in Japan, should news and social media avoid reporting panic buying?

A tweet by the National Supermarket Association of Japan's official Twitter account, which appealed for calm amid heightened concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus in Japan, is seen in this screengrab, at which time it had been retweeted around 20,000 times.

TOKYO -- Reports of food and daily items being bought up by panicked citizens have surged across Japan's traditional news sources and social media as the spread of the novel coronavirus accelerates in the country.

At an emergency press conference on March 25, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike urged the city's residents to refrain from leaving their homes for non-essential reasons over the weekend of March 28-29. Her comments appear to have spurred some to hoard food and other products, and many shops are now experiencing shortages.

But major retailers including supermarkets and convenience stores are reporting that they will generally be operating as normal over the weekend; many social media and news reports have also sought to calm the situation.

Amid the confusion, there have been calls on social media to the effect that "hoarding shouldn't be reported in the first place." How should the media respond to these kinds of phenomena?

The National Supermarket Association of Japan, which counts around 300 supermarket companies among its membership, posted on its official Twitter account on the morning of March 26: "There is no delay in the production or delivery of food products, and shops are not closing. They will continue to do business. Products missing from store shelves will gradually return. Please do not panic. We also ask the media to refrain from agitating the situation."

A spokesperson with the association commented, "We've had a deluge of questions from the media all morning."

Elsewhere, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's public relations office tweeted in reaction to the supermarket association's statement, "It appears there have been instances of people making excessive purchases of food and other products in relation to the preventative measures against the novel coronavirus. Excessive purchasing gives rise to the possibility of supermarkets and other businesses having temporarily low stocks. We ask that all citizens act calmly, and buy only as much as they will need."

At the March 25 press conference, Gov. Koike stated, "There is heightened concern regarding a potential explosion of (coronavirus) cases. This is a crucial moment." On that basis, she sought the cooperation of all Tokyoites to work at home as much as possible, and to avoid making unnecessary outings on the March 28-29 weekend, among other preventative measures.

It appears that Koike's statements led to news programs, social media users and others sharing images of stores in many areas that had been stripped of products including instant noodles, drinks and canned goods. The topic was trending on Twitter, and by 3 p.m. on March 26 there were at least 250,000 tweets using "kaishime," the Japanese term for hoarding.

Among the tweets was one by journalist Toshinao Sasaki, which read, "Even if hoarding happens in places like supermarkets, I think the media shouldn't be reporting it, and it shouldn't be spread on social media either. Let's learn that such reports can lead to even more (panic buying)."

Speaking about his thinking behind the tweet, he cited shortages of toilet paper in Japan from the end of February to the beginning of March that were sparked by false rumors about their sparse supply which spread online.

But he added, "At that time though, there weren't actually that many people being taken in by the rumors. There were a lot of people on social media and in the mainstream media pointing out it wasn't based on true information. But because a lot of people thought there was a high chance that others were taken in by it, and that it would lead to real shortages, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Naoya Sekiya, an expert in misinformation during disasters and an associate professor at the University of Tokyo's Center for Integrated Disaster Information Research said, "Unlike item shortages during disasters, the distribution of goods other than masks isn't being delayed. It's just a demand issue." He continued, "The problem is that the real meaning behind the request for people to refrain from going outside for any non-urgent reason has not been successfully communicated.

"Even if people don't go out on the weekend, as long as there's already been crowds close together at supermarkets and other places, it's meaningless. People aren't being asked to stop shopping for food and doing other things on the weekend in the first place. These are some of the messages not getting across to the public," he added.

(Japanese original by Kenichi Omura, Integrated Digital News Center)

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