Interpretation of the extraordinary situation found in news reports on the Diamond Princess

In modern society, various types of information are transmitted through various media. Since the quality of information is a mix of good and bad, it is important to have the ability to select and interpret highly public information confirmed by multiple fact checks. We need to assess and interpret the intentions and biases behind the information, especially on the issues that affect our future.

For example, as a common matter throughout the world, information that is unfavorable for candidates appears on the Web during an election period. Of course, it is important to examine the accuracy of the information, but even if the information itself is true, it is important to consider why such information was distributed during the election period and whether there is any intention behind it.

In addition, by repeatedly distributing not only inaccurate information but also tendentious information, a bias may occur and sway public opinion in a certain direction. For example, during the U.S. presidential election in 2016, fake news such as “Pope officially endorses Trump” and “Clinton sold weapons to the Islamic State” were widely spread on the Web.

In this age of mixed information, it is important to select media that is relatively highly public and to relativize the information you believe in by being exposed to a variety of information. To this end, it is necessary to deepen understanding of what is happening in Japan and the world today by comparing and analyzing multiple information sources, including information provided by foreign media and international organizations such as the United Nations.

In 2020, novel coronavirus has been prevalent, and we can see some examples where media literacy was questioned.

For example, in February 2020, following the news of the cruise ship Diamond Princess, which was accused of isolating patients with novel coronavirus, we can find that the refusal to disembark passengers was strongly criticized as “inhumane”. U.S. media, especially The New York Times and The Washington Post, were reporting the issue extensively.

Certainly, the spread of the new virus on board the ship was progressing, and considering the stress of the people trapped there, these reports seemed to be correct at the time.

However, given the social changes surrounding novel coronavirus following the incident, these reports have different aspects.

In other words, The New York Times and The Washington Post at that time regarded the novel coronavirus, which was rampant mainly in mainland China in February 2020, as if it was a fire on the other side of the river, and reported that “It’s a violation of basic human rights”, emphasizing democratic values in peacetime rather than the danger of the novel coronavirus.

Despite this criticism from the international media, it was probably difficult for the Japanese government at the time to let the passengers disembark freely. Back then, the Japanese government and medical institutions were not prepared for the novel coronavirus outbreak, and there were not enough facilities in place to isolate disembarked passengers for a certain period of time.

Then, in March, the novel coronavirus began to spread in the United States. The Grand Princess, a sister ship of the Diamond Princess, was anchored off San Francisco after it was discovered that a man aboard the ship died of the virus on March 4, and 21 passengers and crews were subsequently confirmed infected. With this incident, the human rights issue of the Diamond Princess eventually faded away.

For the Grand Princess, a thorough isolation was conducted, in which infection test kits were dropped by a helicopter. After the ship docked in Oakland, California, on March 10, passengers had to be isolated for two weeks at U.S. military facilities.

Through this incident, the American media and public opinion realized how difficult it was to deal with the novel coronavirus and changed their direction in a short period of time.

In the event of an abnormal situation such as a pandemic, whether or not the people involved are familiar with the situation (degree of proximity) makes the tone of the media coverage, the value of the news, and public opinion very different even for similar events.

WHO also misjudged the effect of face masks

Public information reported by governments, international organizations, and the mass media is subject to some degree of fact checking, but not all of its content is based on scientific evidence.

In the case of the novel coronavirus, for example, it is clear that WHO (the World Health Organization) has failed to assess the protective benefits of face masks (non-medical masks).

Even on April 6, 2020, when the number of people infected with the novel coronavirus was rapidly increasing, WHO issued guidelines stating that “Wearing a medical mask is one of the prevention measures that can limit the spread of certain respiratory viral diseases, including COVID-19. However, the use of a mask alone is insufficient to provide an adequate level of protection.” *1

*1 World Health Organization (6 April, 2020): Advice on the use of masks in the context of COVID-19 Interim guidance

When you read these guidelines, you get the impression that even medical masks have a limited effect, therefore wearing general face masks is insufficient to protect people from infection. These WHO guidelines have influenced the response to the novel coronavirus taken by politicians and bureaucrats around the world and have had a significant impact on the tone of the media. Many people all over the world have probably heard, at least once, that wearing a face mask is ineffective against novel coronavirus.

However, in light of the increasing number of infections worldwide and the small number of infections in East Asia, WHO reversed its policy and made a press announcement to promote the wearing of face masks in areas where novel coronavirus was spreading on June 5, 2020. It was two months after the announcement of the previous guidelines, and many people were affected and died during this period.

In Japan and other East Asian countries, people have regularly worn face masks in public to protect themselves from pollen, yellow dust and air pollution. Therefore, regardless of the announcement of WHO’s guidelines stating, “no preventive effect”, many people kept wearing a face mask as the novel coronavirus spread.

Of course, the effect of non-medical masks is limited. However, wearing of a face mask certainly reduces the risk of infected people spreading droplets and reduces the frequency of non-infected people touching their mouth and nose with their hands.

By the values which are common in Western countries, wearing a face mask in public indicates that you are seriously ill. Due to these customary reasons and the influence of WHO’s guidelines, Western countries, in contrast to East Asian countries, were reluctant to adopt face masks. The media has been bombarded with gossip about the novel coronavirus, with the U.S. president saying, “It’s like a flu” and the Belarusian president saying, “It’s okay if you drink vodka.”

However, looking at news footage from Europe and the United States, police officers, people lining up at supermarkets and many other people seen in videos began to wear a face mask since around April. Even in the United States, where individual freedom is highly valued, public opinion was divided over whether or not face masks are needed in public places, supermarkets and other commercial facilities, and the political situation was also divided.

Thus, regardless of WHO’s guidelines, many people in Europe and the United States have begun to wear a face mask in public at their own discretion. In an abnormal situation such as a pandemic, sticking to conventional common sense and values can make a difference between life and death for us. You also need an ability to interpret information based on your own experience and knowledge, rather than swallowing the information delivered by WHO or the media without a thought. The principle of journalism is also found in “contributing to the autonomic information handling by people.”

In March 2020, I featured Setsuko Shinoda’s work titled “Summer Disaster” , which was published in serial form on Nishinippon Shimbun (“Gendai Bungaku Fudoki”). This novel is a pioneering pandemic novel that painstakingly depicts the government’s response to a new virus similar to Japanese encephalitis, from the viewpoint of city hall employees.

In my own experience, immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake, I recalled Kazuki Sakuraba’s Naoki Prize winning novel, “My Man” which depicts the 1993 Okushiri Island earthquake, and I imagined the horrors of tsunamis after a major earthquake. Literary imagination sometimes contributes to emergency judgment and media literacy.

In March 2020, for example, genome analysis demonstrated that the misinterpretation of information on the novel coronavirus by the Japanese government led to the spread of the infection.

According to “An epidemiological study of the SARS-CoV-2 genome in Japan” (April 27, 2020) by the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, Japan was successful in containing clusters of infections from China in an early stage. However, by mid-March, the second wave hit Japan allowing the virus to enter the country via returnees from EU countries and the United States and led to the spread of infection from late March to early April.

Until travel and entry restrictions were imposed on many countries in late March, the Japanese government had a strict view of people who came or returned from China. However, people who came or returned from Europe and the United States were not properly checked by PCR and other tests.

If we had scanned through reports from foreign media as of March, it would have been clear that COVID-19 was not only spreading in China but also across the world, including Europe and the United States. This is a typical case where preconceived notions about international affairs mislead a crisis response, and I think that Japan lacked the attitude to analyze the aftermath of the Diamond Princess problem, which was widely reported in February in Japan, from an international perspective.

As the results of the epidemiological study of the SARS-CoV-2 genome show, the assumption that “Western countries have a solid quarantine system” believed by many people living in Japan led to the spread of infection in Japan from late March to early April and brought many deaths.

Compare and analyze multiple media to avoid normalcy bias

Making a wrong decision in an abnormal situation can also be considered as a common habit of humans that has been repeated in the past in every country or region.

One example is the Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea, 2014. The accident occurred when a large passenger ship capsized and sank. High school students on board received an inappropriate evacuation order and followed an announcement on the PA system asking them to wait in their cabins, resulting in many deaths.

In Japan, this announcement attracted a great deal of attention. But in Korea, swimming lessons are not as common as in Japan, so even if they were wearing life jackets, they would not have had the option to swim away.

People have a psychological trait called normalcy bias. When you’re faced with an abnormal situation, you desire to ignore inconvenient things for your thought and assume that the situation at hand is normal. This can happen not only during abnormal conditions, but also in everyday meetings and discussions, especially in controversial discussions.

Humans sometimes underestimate an impending danger and misconduct their initial response to a life-or-death disaster. For more details, please refer to Volume 4 of the video material “Short Stories: Leaning Media, Society, and Me” (Maruzen Publishing), which I supervised last year.

In summary, the aforementioned US media coverage of the Diamond Princess, WHO guidelines on the protective effects of face masks against the novel coronavirus, and Japanese people’s excessive reliance on Western quarantine systems also show normalcy biases, or assumptions and prejudices about the normalcy of familiar social order and customs.

Not only when a ship sinks, but also in extraordinary situations such as pandemics, assumptions and prejudices can be a matter of life and death.

An effective way to prevent such a situation is to enhance your media literacy. In order to improve media literacy, it is important to improve your literary imagination by reading novels, to travel and exercise, and to deepen your understanding of society through the human body senses, instead of searching for information on the Internet and misunderstanding as if you know the real world.

It is still important to constantly relativize the assumptions and prejudices which everyone has by comparing and examining multiple pieces of information and broadening our perspectives on society and the world while dealing with various media. Listening to other people’s opinions and paying attention to different opinions are surprisingly difficult, and such abilities are cultivated through daily contact with various media and talking with various people.

In that sense, the Japanese media environment is one of the most fortunate in the world, with a mature translation culture, a diverse range of publications, numerous library collections, and an abundance of information on the Web.

It is also important to compare and analyze reports from foreign media in English and information from international organizations such as the United Nations. This will help you to deepen your understanding of Japan’s social order and to review your way of working and living in the context of world affairs. In our classes, we compare and analyze news that has attracted international attention, such as the Diamond Princess problem and controversy over wearing a face mask, and share our thoughts with students about the future of Japan’s social system. There I learn a lot from students.

In any case, we need to be aware that the existence of media literacy affects our lives and can make a difference between life and death for us. Information on the Internet is also useful, but I think it is important to have an attitude to deepen understanding of society and the world by being exposed to various kinds of media such as novels and English news, and by coming into contact with different information and opinions, and to search for a way of life to adapt to the changes.

To start with, listen to people who have different opinions from your own, review your own thoughts, and try to expand your interests by reading books you have never read before.

* The information contained herein is current as of September 2020.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

Information noted in the articles and videos, such as positions and affiliations, are current at the time of production.