In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries have implemented varying levels of social distancing as a strategy to curb the transmission of the virus. This has inevitably led to a significant change in the media industry, especially television programs and news shows.
A journalist from The Japan Times, Toko Shirakawa, who is also a member of the Cabinet Office panel on work-style reforms in Japan, hinted in his article dated 13 April that people appearing in television programs are now distancing themselves from one another.
“It is one of the signs that Japan is belatedly adopting social distancing—keeping a distance of at least 1.8 meters—to avoid being infected or infecting others with the new coronavirus,” Mr Shirakawa noted.
Prior to that, broadcasting studios in Japan were not avoiding the types of closeness that the Japanese television news anchors had urged people to avoid—closed spaces, crowded places and conversations in close proximity—to prevent from getting infected with the COVID-19 virus.
“From my experience as a guest commentator, I know how closed a space a TV studio is. In TV studios, three times as many people as those who appear on TV are working behind the scenes—with the TV personalities and staff working at a close distance with each other. For the sake of visuals, commentators sit so close that their elbows are almost touching,” he noted.
While the program could last for an hour or two, Mr Shirakawa noted that the recording process requires more time and the people speaking to each other in close proximity for such a long period of time can potentially be a source of infection.
With the notion that television programs can influence the viewers’ behavior, Mr Shirakawa tweeted on 28 March to raise the people’s awareness.
He tweeted, “I am surprised by the media people’s bias toward ‘normality’. As long as TV programs are showing the standard everyday scenes, people’s behavior will not change. People involved in image production must strongly care about the message conveyed by an image. While their reports on the COVID-19 outbreak are splendid, people in the TV studios are not doing social distancing.”
According to Mr Shirakawa, the first program that implemented social distancing in the studio was a program broadcasted by NHK World-Japan in which the Head of the OECD Tokyo Centre, Yumiko Murkami requested to practice social distancing when she appeared in the program.
Mr Shirakawa noted that people began to follow the example set by the program, and commentators in other news programs also started to keep a gap between one another.
“In some programs, commentators are now speaking from different rooms so as to reduce the risk of infections by minimizing the contact with one another. The TV screen may have to be divided into two, but viewers will soon get used to it since the format is already common in TV news programs overseas,” he explained.
Ms Murkami’s request came after she read the message from Mr Shirakawa, who sent an email to the Women in Media Network Japan, stating that “Japanese television news programs on the pandemic are not persuasive enough since people making the programs are working in a small, congested space.”
In response to his email, many had raised the issue in their workplaces and television broadcasters were also prompted to discuss the problem. He was also told by TV personality, Keiko Kojima that people appearing in the programs are worried about getting infected by the COVID-19 virus.
“In Japan, many memorial programs were broadcast in recent weeks to mourn the death of popular comedian Ken Shimura due to COVID-19. It must be pointed out that his elderly friends and former colleagues of the Drifters group were put to risk of exposure to the virus when they were called to the studios,” he added.
He further stressed that regardless of the critical issue being discussed in the news program, they will fail to convey the message to the audience if the images displayed on the television screen remains the same as before the pandemic occurred.
“It is important for TV programs to change now,” urged Mr Shirakawa.
TV newscasts in other countries are also being produced remotely amid the pandemic
Meanwhile, Mr Shirakawa also relayed the points about television news programs in other countries imposed restrictions on closeness in which TV personalities will keep a distance of 1.8 meters from each other in a studio.
He noted that sports and weather commentators in the United States are reporting remotely from their homes.
“In the recent broadcast of a popular TV news show in the US, the main newscaster was speaking from her home, using a hand-drawn flip chart,” Mr Shirakawa said.
Mr Shirakawa further asserted, “That was the means to convey what the program wanted to say to the viewers – how it is important to keep more than an arm’s length distance from each other, and that the US was at a critical stage in its efforts to stop infections and the collapse of the medical system already taking place.”
Another example of this is the broadcast video by the BBC’s health correspondent, Laura Foster, who explained the best ways to keep the right distance away from other people, following the United Kingdom Government advised its people to stay home and only go out if necessary.
The video was recorded beside the streets whereby Ms Foster demonstrated how to ensure the right gap of 1.8 meters from the other person by using a broom. It also displayed infographic footage to explain the gap in the streets, park, public transport, office, and shop.