'Seventeen' Is a Journalistic Thriller for Anyone Concerned About the State of News Media
Replete with intense drama, moral dilemmas, and interpersonal conflict, Hideo Yokoyama provides a remarkably well-constructed illustration of the dilemmas journalists face in difficult situations.
In an episode toward the end of Hideo Yokoyama's novel Seventeen, about a newspaper's coverage of a major air crash, the bereaved daughter of a car accident victim angrily confronts one of the paper's reporters. She tears into him over the fact that the same newspaper which is devoting so much thoughtful and heartfelt coverage to the grieving relatives of the crash victims, failed to even print the news of her father's death.
"There are big lives and little lives," she accuses him. "Heavy lives and lightweight lives; important lives, and lives that are…not."
The accusation could be leveled at almost any media outlet today. Who decides which deaths are worthy of what type of coverage? More broadly, who decides what news is worthy of coverage, and how much, and of what type?
These are among the many important journalistic debates Yokoyama taps into in his remarkable novel, first published in 2003 in Japan and released in English translation this year. The English-speaking world is finally getting a taste of Yokoyama, one of Japan's premiere novelists. His crime thriller Six Four was released in English translation in 2016 amid critical acclaim, introducing him to English readers for the first time. Seventeen is his second work to make English translation, and while it's just as good as Six Four—if not superior—its narrative moves in a very different direction. What Yokoyama has produced is an astonishing innovation: a journalism procedural that reads with the thrilling immediacy of a crime novel.
The narrative is based on an actual event—the crash of a jumbo jet in 1985, resulting in the tragic deaths of 520 people—and follows the staff of a fictional local newspaper as they struggle to cover the horrific event and its aftermath.
Unlike Yokoyama's previous work, there's no crime to solve here in the regular sense. There is a story to ferret out—where did the plane crash; what caused the crash; will anyone face responsibility for it?—but what makes this book a compelling page-turner is the sincere front-line authenticity with which he depicts reporters struggling to get their story out and do their job well. The narrative unfolds as a day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour chronicle of the journalists' effort to figure out what has happened, their race to find the crash site, and then to stay on top of the story as it develops in all its tragic and horrifying detail.
The main action centres around Kazumasa Yuuki, a reporter who works for the North Kanto Times. It's a prefectural newspaper in sleepy little Gunma, a place where not a whole lot usually happens. Yuuki is a veteran reporter who has deliberately refused to advance through the ranks of editorial promotions which his other colleagues have jealously fought over. Earlier in his career, a junior reporter he was mentoring died in the pursuit of a story, and while Yuuki was formally exonerated he blames himself for the young man's death. As a result he's refused to seek promotion or any position that would place him in a position of responsibility over other reporters. This has made him an anomaly for a newspaper in that time and place: a career reporter with no desire for advancement. His editors indulge him because they know the personal torment he feels, but they too face pressure to either promote him or move him out, lest he set a bad example for other junior reporters.
Yuuki's self-imposed professional stasis is shattered when a jumbo jet crashes in the mountains of Gunma. The real-life crash was the world's largest aircraft disaster to date, and Yuuki's editors assign him the role of desk chief for the paper's crash coverage: responsible for both the individual reporters on his team as well as the articles they choose to publish. As the eyes of the world—and the reporters of Japan's much larger and more ambitious national newspaper chains—turn to focus on Gunma, Yuuki must direct his field reporters, negotiate with his own superiors in editorial, advertising and circulation, and decide how best the paper ought to cover the crash.
It might sound like a flimsy premise for a thrilling page-turner, but Yokoyama turns it into a masterpiece. For any newspaper, an event like this would be the true test of its mettle, a crisis coverage of the sort that rarely happens if ever. Such a situation is replete with intense drama, moral dilemmas, and interpersonal conflict, and Yokoyama provides a remarkably well-constructed illustration of the dilemmas journalists face in these situations. How many reporters ought to be assigned to the story, and what other coverage will be sacrificed as a result? How long should the story remain top in their headlines? Which articles ought to be given centre stage? When a reporter goes through hell and nearly dies in the pursuit of a powerfully moving piece that is suddenly upstaged by subsequent events, do you still run their story? How do you negotiate the demands of advertisers—a paper's bread and butter—with the need for more space for news coverage? When other local and national stories emerge, unrelated to the crash but of significant local importance, at what point do you decide to fade the air crash story off the front page?
As desk chief for crash coverage, Yuuki struggles to keep their coverage honest, detailed, and front and centre in the paper. He clashes with other editors, and must develop ingenious compromises and pick and choose his battles carefully. Reporters squabble with each other over bylines and credit for their stories. Petty intrigues and plots emerge as the various other departments of the newspaper—advertising, sales and distribution—scheme to control news and editorial content; each unit has a disparaging perception of the importance of the others to the overall success of the newspaper.
When his paper stumbles on an amazing scoop in regards to the crash, Yuuki must scramble to coordinate his most reliable reporters in an effort to gather corroborating evidence. How much evidence is enough? How can they get it, quietly and honestly and without tipping off the other news agencies? Finally, he must make the most difficult decision any editor faces: whether to run a story that would be a tremendous international scoop, but with lingering questions about its veracity; or to wait for more solid evidence and risk other papers getting the scoop.
Yokoyama, a bestselling crime fiction writer, knows how to craft a suspenseful, fast-paced narrative and he manages, remarkably, to apply this skill to create a journalistic thriller. The reader finds themselves deeply wrapped up in the daily coverage. Moral and logistical dilemmas faced by the reporters turn into nail-biting page-turners, and the reader shares in the breathtaking intensity of the week of crash coverage.
Yokoyama, who worked as a reporter for many years in a regional paper like the one he depicts in his novel, knows what he's talking about. The situations he develops will resonate as deeply familiar to any journalist or editor, who will easily recognize themselves in the protagonists' daily struggles.
Yokoyama earnestly works to apprise his readers of the sorts of dilemmas faced by individual reporters and editors, but also of the dilemmas faced by journalism more broadly. The North Kanto Times is a local, prefectural newspaper, and thus has an ambiguous sense of self: bigger than a community newspaper, but smaller than a national newspaper, it's torn between these two identities. When an event of national significance occurs on its doorstep, should it concede pride of place to the national papers, and keep doing what it does best (covering school openings, local festivals, gubernatorial campaigns)? Or should it presume to compete with the powerful national papers to provide the best coverage of the crash? This is its home turf, after all—its reporters know the area, know the people, and pride themselves as being good reporters.
It's a real-life dilemma faced by many media agencies around the world, which often fail to take on ambitious reporting projects or to print daring and principled articles out of a self-imposed inferiority complex. Yet the reporters on those papers, deep down, yearn for the chance to break out of covering school music festivals and to do the real reporting they trained for. When a major story falls into their lap, will they be up to the challenge?
Beneath the thrilling main narrative, Yokoyama is sending some important messages to journalists who read this book. He's reminding them that regardless of how big or small their paper; whether located in urban capitals or rural countrysides; whether covering local traffic accidents or international airline crashes, their responsibilities remain the same: to provide "detailed, informative articles… that was why local newspapers existed." Comparing themselves against competitors, worrying about how others perceive them, all matter less than getting out and doing the job of reporting. It's easy to fall into a preconceived box, and what the reporters in Seventeen constantly struggle to remember and to rediscover is that the limits, quality and scale of their reporting is theirs alone to determine.
The reporters also face painful lessons in remembering their humanity—the incident described earlier with the daughter of the accident victim is an important one, and one which winds up having an indelible impact on Yuuki's career.
The bulk of the book concerns the 1985 crash coverage, but woven throughout is a second timeline, which takes place 17 years later. Yuuki, an avid hiker and mountain climber, is attempting a dangerous mountain climb with the son of one of his colleagues from the paper, and this affords an opportunity for the characters to reflect on the events of 17 years earlier (along with a gripping snapshot of Japanese mountain-climbing culture).
As we know, contemporary journalism is in a serious state of crisis. The phenomenon of 'fake news' is only a part of it. Many newspapers are unsure of their raison d'etre any more. The application of algorithms to news websites means most readers are unable to get quality news even if they want it; many news agencies provide different headlines depending on which part of the world you're accessing them from and what your other online activity defines you as to advertisers; the result is that former news power-houses like the BBC have turned into taxpayer-fueled curators of kitten videos. Managing editors of newspapers have succumbed to advertisers' demands to cater to an audience that is supposedly incapable of sustained or intelligent interest in anything, according to the advertisers' imaginations. The result is more news than ever before, but of far less quality, depth and importance than a mere 20 years ago.
Yokoyama's novel is set in 1985, which is an entirely different technological era. Cellphones are rare; the internet for all intents and purposes non-existent. But this allows him to focus on the dilemmas of journalistic ethics without being distracted by today's technological toys, and at the same time reminds us that regardless of the era, the type of paper, or the technologies available to it, good reporting is defined by the principles, integrity, rigour and dedication of the reporters who do it. It's an important reminder of exactly how real journalism works, and why and how it can be so essential for a public whose faith in journalism has been shattered by its recent transformations.
There are critical lessons in this book for journalists and for the news-consuming public alike. That Yokoyama has also made of such an important book a nail-biting thriller is testament to his prowess as a writer. Seventeen is a thrilling, thought-provoking, and important book, and one for anyone who cares about the state of journalism.