This is Part 1 of a three-part series on disclosing names in news coverage in Japan

TOKYO - The horrific arson attack at an animation studio in Kyoto in July, which killed 36 people and injured 33 others, could very well be remembered as a pivotal moment in media coverage of victims of such criminal acts in Japan.

Japanese media refrained from excessive news coverage of bereaved family members in the Kyoto Animation Co. arson attack, but also explained in their reporting their rationale for revealing victims' names, despite objections from families.

Some reporters on the scene agonized over how to cover the tragedy in the most professional way, while at the same time taking into account the feelings of the victims' family members. But ultimately, many news organizations felt putting names and faces to the incident, instead of just figures, would humanize the story.

Divulging the names of victims is dealt with differently from country to country.

In the United States and Britain, for example, disclosure of victims' names in accidents or criminal cases is widely practiced, with the public's right to know given precedence. Germany and South Korea, on the other hand, withhold names, in principle, as the protection of privacy is prioritized.

(Photo taken July 18, 2019, from a Kyodo News helicopter shows the three-story studio of Kyoto Animation Co. in Kyoto after a man started a fire there.)

Reporters, covering the arson attack in the Fushimi Ward of Kyoto, were bewildered because each news organization's reporting activities were exposed through the widespread use of the internet, which often resulted in criticism of their coverage.

After the July 18 arson attack on the company, abbreviated KyoAni, the names of 10 of the victims were announced on Aug. 2 and 25 others on Aug. 27. The 36th victim died in early October.

But why did it take so long?

The Kyoto prefectural police made contact with all of the bereaved families to determine if they approved of the release of the victims' names and asked whether they would agree to have the media interview a family member of their choosing.

Moreover, the National Police Agency also instructed the Kyoto police to get consent from the families to release the names. Twenty-two family members declined permission.

According to a petition claiming a violation of human rights brought to the Kyoto Bar Association in early December, even though the Kyoto police told news outlets that the family members had refused to release the names, news organizations did so anyway.

(Kyoto Animation Co.'s president Hideaki Hatta speaks at a press conference in Kyoto on Oct. 18, 2019.)

Some argue the release of victims' names is vital in reporting major criminal cases or accidents accurately and provides valuable lessons for society.

National dailies and local newspapers ran reports on the KyoAni arson attack using the names of victims released by the police. At the same time, they cooperated to avoid excessive coverage.

For example, representatives from each media organization visited the bereaved, and other people concerned, instead of a scrum of reporters and immediately left when requests for interviews were rejected. Information on the reactions of affected people was also shared among the media outlets.

The Asahi Shimbun and many other newspapers also explained the reasons for mentioning the names of victims in their stories.

In its coverage of the arson, the Mainichi Shimbun decided to offer a detailed explanation of why it chose to use the victims' names, pay due consideration to the families of victims and avoid media scrums.

On the day after the names of 25 victims were announced, the Mainichi ran an article on its stance on releasing the names and included past cases where it chose to withhold names.

"Speaking from my experience of being a reporter covering incidents and accidents, I think a name offers 'proof of living,'" said freelance journalist Akihiro Otani, a former reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun, in the Mainichi's Sept. 16 edition.

"There were people who came to the scene of the (KyoAni) incident, saying 'Because I knew the names I felt the need to come to offer my prayers...Reporting names in the media is a manifestation of the resolution not to allow a victim's life to fade away with time."

(Indonesian university students visit the burnt-out, three-story studio of Kyoto Animation Co. in Kyoto, western Japan, on Aug. 25, 2019.)

The Kyoto Shimbun released a story on distress among reporters assigned to the KyoAni case under the headline, "Torn over the risks of hurting bereaved families" in its Aug. 18 edition. On Aug. 28, the local daily also reported on an in-house debate on whether anonymous coverage truly conveys the grief of affected families to readers.

While the Kyoto daily decided to post victims' photos if permitted by their families in principle, reporters reached an agreement, endorsed by senior editors, not to cover wakes and funerals, according to Shigetaka Meguro, a managing director of the city news section.

Just rattling off reasons for reporting names, such as readers' "right to know," keeping "historical records" and being "common sense abroad," may not hold much sway with grief-stricken family members. Experts argue that more convincing explanations are needed.

At a third-party meeting organized by Kyodo News in November, journalist Yasushi Kamada made the point that "The rationale of releasing names because there is a 'right to know' is not a persuasive argument for the average person."

Masahiro Sogabe, a professor of information law at Kyoto University's graduate school, posed the question, "Are victims' names for public purview? I think the people involved and their families' intentions should also be respected."

In the United States, the names of victims are usually revealed after notifying affected families but are sometimes withheld in sex-related crimes or cases involving juveniles.

In Britain, victims are identified, and the names are disclosed once families have been notified, according to police guidelines worked out in cooperation with the press.

The names of victims are withheld in Germany, except in the case of public figures. In principle, the protection of privacy applies to perpetrators. But their given names, along with the first letter of their surnames, appear in reports. Full names and photos of the accused, however, can be revealed at each news organization's discretion in cases drawing strong public attention.

South Korean media do not report victims' names, except in cases involving celebrities, because police refuse to release them under a law protecting crime victims. Names of perpetrators are also withheld, but exceptions are sometimes made for particularly atrocious crimes.

Newspapers' detailed accounts to explain the reasons for releasing names in news coverage, and reports of how this has sparked internal debate at news outlets in the wake of the KyoAni arson attack, suggest a new direction for media coverage in Japan.

Continue reading:

Part 2: Mother resolves to honor son's life from hostage crisis

Part 3: Bereaved dad conflicted about publication of victims' names in news

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