Sensationalist Media Coverage

We have seen that concurrently with the changing nature of the Chinese food incidents, the overall image of China in Japan also began to change at the turn of the century. The combination of these two factors is further reflected in a quantitative and qualitative change in Japanese media coverage of food-related scandals in and from China around the 2000s. This section will trace back the changes in media coverage on food safety matters related to China as a factor contributing to the negative perception of Chinese foods in Japan.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was very little media coverage of Chinese food contamination incidents, whether they reached Japan or not. For example, in 1988 the consumption of contaminated clams led to a massive outbreak of hepatitis A in Shanghai, affecting almost 300,000 people - quite possibly the largest foodborne disease incident in history.[1] Although picked up by the Asahi Shimbun and the Yomiuri Shimbun, the coverage was limited to one very brief article per newspaper (Asahi Shimbun, March 22, 1988; Yomiuri Shimbun, March 3, 1988). This is probably also related to the fact that the link between the consumed clams and hepatitis A was not immediately clear. However, today, without any doubt, such a food contamination event, even if affecting only China, would not only enjoy saturation media coverage but would also likely trigger a debate on policy changes regarding the safety of food imports.

The first mention of China in relation to matters of food safety in AERA, the weekly magazine published by Asahi Shimbun, is in 1989; when a nail was found in matsutake mushrooms. The Chinese origin of the troubled mushroom is mentioned, but not in a negative or problematic way. Chinese imports are mentioned in the context of the rapid increase of Japanese import volumes, alongside North- and South- Korean, Canadian, Moroccan, Mexican, and American foodstuffs.[2] It could thus be argued that in the absence of a widely held negative image of China in the 1990s, China-related food safety incidents were not only reported upon less quantitatively but also the qualitative nature of coverage was far less sensationalist than in the 2000s.

As the China threat theory began to take hold, the portrayal of China- related food incidents in the media and the narrative framework in which they developed changed. The particular framing of incidents is key as it influences agenda setting in the media as well as society, and actors that have the power or necessary relations, can do so to a specific end. The way a problem is defined, answers questions as to how the problem should be resolved, the means that should be chosen, and the ends that should be achieved. Hence, it is obvious that controlling the media’s definition of the problem and the solution which the definition implies, is one tactic that turns the mass media into a potential playground for those actors that have specific economic, moral, political, or scientific stakes in gives issues. The media thus plays a pivotal role in setting goals, assigning responsibility, and assessing the efforts of governments in the case of a crisis.[3]

Consumers build their perception of food safety problems through media rather than direct personal experiences or government commu- nication.[4] The rise of social media in recent years has led to an

‘explosion of information’, which has definitely contributed to the development of this public perception, but also the more ‘traditional’ media play a vital role in framing these incidents. Media coverage has the power to activate a certain narrative framework by triggering pre-existing feelings or experiences among the public. According to the confirmation bias in information processing, people tend to select information that confirms their opinion or beliefs, fitting their existing prejudices, while they dismiss, ignore, or doubt information contrary to their original views.[5] When the audience complements information lacking in the story with their pre-existing feelings, knowledge, experience, or opinions, a fertile ground is created for rumours and myths.

O’Shea (2015) has already compared two strikingly similar food incidents, proving the quantitative difference in media coverage of a domestic scandal versus a China-related one. The abovementioned 2008 Chinese gyoza poisoning and the 2014 Japanese Aqli foods poisoning were both deliberate contaminations by disgruntled employees injecting poison into processed foods: The first, a Chinese company exporting to Japan, the second a Japanese company selling in Japan. Both companies were forced to recall their products in Japan, and twice police investigations brought the intentional motives of the poisonings to light. The variables for both cases match, only the source of the scandals being different. The Chinese case resulted in 10 Japanese consumers falling severely ill; while the Aqli case had a much wider scale of direct victims: some 2,800 Japanese reportedly suffered sickness.[6] However, the difference in media coverage with the 2008 gyoza case is striking: one month after the news broke, ‘only’ 438 articles covered the Japanese Aqli case in Asahi and Yomiuri Shimbun,[7] as compared to the 1,541 articles on the Chinese gyoza contamination. With his comparison, O’Shea showed that intentionality alone cannot explain the exacerbated reaction to the 2008 gyoza incident, and he argued that both incidents developed in a different narrative framework.6

A content analysis of the media coverage of both cases further brought to light that the Chinese dumpling incident was portrayed as a case of terror, coming from China, a country devoid of food safety problems. Japan was designated as the victim, while the risk was generalized to all of China instead of one company. The solution presented to the Japanese consumer was to stick to Japanese domestic foods, as a guarantee for food safety. In contrast, the domestic Aqli case was treated as a ‘mere’ criminal act, implying that by capturing the villain, the problem was solved for the Japanese consumer. By dismissing the allegation of food terrorism in the Aqli case and other domestic precedents, the media coverage further implied that food terror as such was applicable only to threats coming from abroad. Most importantly maybe, is that after the dumpling incident, media coverage advocated stricter import measures on food coming from China. The domestic incident, by way of its portrayal, led neither to any debate on regulatory change nor to a critical appraisal of Japan’s structural agricultural crisis.[8] [9]

Incidents involving Chinese food products have received disproportionate media coverage and have become an issue of major concern to Japanese consumers. The Japanese media narrative, and indeed the conventional public wisdom, was - or largely is - that the consumption of Chinese food became an objectively higher risk in the 2000s than previously. As already mentioned, changes in the Japanese framework ensuring food safety, such as the revised Food Safety Basic Law, or the establishment of a Food Safety Commission, both in 2003, were a reaction to food scandals, but at the same time seemingly confirmed this widespread idea. As an opinion poll in 2003 showed, Japanese people turn towards newspapers as the most trustworthy source of information in the case of a food emergency. Given the fact that information provided by the government agencies and ministries was only the third choice, after television and radio news, this adds to the power and impact of the newspapers as agenda-setters as well as investigative watchdogs.[10] In 2007, headlines were dominated by a story involving fake steamed buns (nikuman) sold by vendors in Beijing. According to the story, the buns were made of cardboard and pork flavouring. Although a domestic issue in China with no possible consequences for the Japanese consumer, the story was front-page news in Japan. A survey in the aftermath of the incident found 39% of the respondents stating that they would no longer buy Chinese food at all, and another 35% would refrain from buying certain Chinese foods.[11] Even after it transpired that the story was a hoax, this revelation was largely ignored in the newspapers, as it played into the developing Chinese food/bad - Japanese food/good dichotomy.[12]

The story is of course not as clear-cut as this, and a counter-tendency in the media, which gives a more nuanced view, can be observed as well around the 2010s. General criticism towards Chinese imports diminished, partly due to rising domestic prices.[13] Attention is being paid to the fact that many food incidents, such as products imported from China being labelled and sold as Japanese, partly carry Japanese responsibility.

If the Japanese side is involved in the violation by a local subsidiary, we should not only blame the Chinese side. Of many of those Chinese food problems, which receive a lot of commotion recently, the Japanese side carries responsibility as well. (AERA, July 30, 2007)[14]

Another example in this context is the episode ‘Can we trust them, Chinese foods?’ (Shinrai dekiru ka? Chugoku shokuhin?) on the NHK blog Kurashi * kaisetsu (Life * explained) in 2014, in which the China expert Kato Harunobu puts the most recent food incident with Chinese chicken nuggets into perspective, stating among others also the statistically proven improvement in food safety records in order to debunk the perceived Chinese food threat.[15]

  • [1] Halliday et al., ‘An Epidemic of Hepatitis A’, 852.
  • [2] ‘Kimi wa matsutake wo mo tabeta ka’ [Have you already eaten matsutake mushrooms?], AERA,October 17, 1989, 62.
  • [3] Majone, Evidence, Argument, and Persuasion in the Policy Process.
  • [4] Wang et al., ‘The Transformation of Trust’, 19.
  • [5] Slovic, ‘Perception of Risk’, 280—285; Gardner, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear.
  • [6] Interestingly, many of these ‘reported’ victims seemed to be phantom cases and a lot of themedia coverage was dedicated to reporting on the negative result of medical checks on customerswith supposed symptoms.
  • [7] Search using the CrossAsia database, using ' Akuri fuzu [Aqli Foods], December 30, 2013—January 31, 2014.
  • [8] O’Shea, ‘Dodgy Dumplings’, 9-11, 14-15.
  • [9] Walravens, ‘Appetite for the Domestic’, unpublished manuscript.
  • [10] Food Safety Commission, ‘Food Safety Monitor Survey’.
  • [11] Onami and Kawano, ‘Chugoku kirai no honshin’.
  • [12] Walravens, ‘Japan Facing a Rising China’, 133.
  • [13] Furthermore, it seems that also the series of domestic scandals and deliberate mislabelling arefinally gaining ground within the Japanese public as well.
  • [14] Fujiu and Kimura, ‘Chugoku tondemo shokuhin’. In a follow-up article a month later, Japanesetraders, beekeepers, and eel-importers testify on Japanese responsibility, driven mainly by thecontinuous demand for cheaper foods by Japanese customers, concerning the problems relating toChinese foods. ‘Chugoku no “doku” wa nihonhatsu’, Aera, August 6, 2007, 29.
  • [15] Kato, ‘Shinrai dekiru ka?’.
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