On the Hunt for DNA

Original or “inspired”? The Asahi’s reporting on the police’s DNA database

2020.08.28 16:00 Makoto Watanabe

The front page of the The Asahi Shimbun’s Aug. 23, 2020 morning edition led with an article titled “DNA database of police expanding, as no law limits its collection.” With subheadings “DNA collected from 1.3 million suspects” and “Not only taken for felonies,” the article described the police’s collection of so-called suspects’ DNA and their ever-growing DNA database. It was also published to the Asahi’s website at 5 a.m. that morning, tagged “original reporting.” (A partial English version was published online around 6 p.m. that day.)

Is the article really original reporting, though? A little less than a year earlier, on Sept. 5, 2019, Tansa began publication of our series “On the Hunt for DNA.” We too examined the police’s DNA database, using freedom of information requests to obtain National Police Agency records. However, the Asahi’s article contained no mention of — or, online, even a link to — our work.

There is no doubt that the Asahi’s article was inspired by Tansa’s series. A member of the Asahi’s reporting team contacted me to say as much following their article’s release.

The same story being covered by multiple outlets is a key tool for media that aims to serve and improve society. And there is meaning in the Asahi’s coverage of the police’s unregulated and unchecked collection of DNA.

But at the same time, I also believe it is important for journalists to respect and acknowledge each other’s work. The industry suffers if major outlets erase the reporting done by smaller ones.

Outside Japan, more often than not, media will credit the outlet that broke a story.

For example, The Washington Post’s attribution policy states that “It is the policy of this newspaper to give credit to other publications that develop exclusive stories worthy of coverage by The Post.” And Reuters’ integrity police has this to say about dealing with competitors: “We acknowledge when our competitors obtain exclusive news that is of value to our customers by attributing it to them clearly in pickups, just as we would expect from them.” Even if a competitor is not mentioned by name, it is common practice for online articles to include links to significant preceding reporting by other outlets.

For the above reasons, Tansa has contacted the Asahi to request that it amend its article on the police’s collection of DNA to acknowledge our reporting.

Going forward, Tansa will continue to encourage good journalistic etiquette among Japan’s media.

Makoto Watanabe, Editor-in-Chief
Aug. 27, 2020

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