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IIST e-Magazine (For the Japanese version of this article)

Through a Glass Darkly Media Coverage of the March 11 Disaster and Beyond| Marie Speed, PhD Director Translator and consultant [Date of Issue: 30/June/2011 No.0196-0802]

Date of Issue:30/June/2011

Through a Glass Darkly
Media Coverage of the March 11 Disaster and Beyond

Marie Speed, PhD
Translator and consultant

In March this year, the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant crisis triggered worldwide panic. Particularly in such crisis situations, people require solid reportage, but media coverage this time often failed to rise to that challenge. Here I look at issues with press coverage of the crisis, as well as at ‘private’ media such as blogs.

The chain of disasters striking Japan in March this year—a massive quake followed by an equally massive tsunami, in turn generating an emergency situation at a nuclear power plant only hours from the capital of Tokyo—horrified onlookers from around the world. Even as people struggled to come to grips with the devastation in northeastern Japan, the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant crisis caused worldwide panic. For two groups of ‘outsiders’, the nuclear emergency was particularly personal. The first group comprised people living outside Japan trying to ascertain the safety of family and friends living in the affected areas. The second comprised foreigners actually resident in Japan who urgently needed accurate information on which to base a huge decision—to stay or to go. Unfortunately for both groups, the flood of media coverage in the wake of March 11 was characterized by rather different priorities. Here I look at issues with press coverage in and outside Japan, as well as the emergence of ‘private’ media in the form of blogs as potentially more credible and valuable information sources.

Twelve years living in Tokyo and ongoing business and personal connections mean that even while I now spend much of the year just out of Christchurch in New Zealand, I continue to operate somewhere between New Zealand and Japan time. Consequently, my first news of the earthquake came bare minutes after the event in the form of e-mails from friends in Tokyo office buildings who were just emerging from under their desks. The phone network crashed shortly afterward under the burden of literally millions of calls. With trains also suspended, it was many long hours after people had straggled home on foot or through endless traffic jams that the other e-mail messages came through one by one confirming that Tokyo had been badly shaken but remained mostly undamaged. News from further north was bleak, however, with the television showing horrifying footage of tsunami waters engulfing fields, villages and entire towns, and the first, shocking, reports emerging of bodies washing up on the coast. And just as the full enormity of the disaster was beginning to sink in, the media focus snapped across to a newly unfolding crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Given the potentially disastrous implications of the crisis not only for Japan but also internationally, the immediate requirement was for solid reporting of the available facts and objective analysis of those facts. In New Zealand, unfortunately, media coverage of Fukushima Dai-ichi was typified by headlines like ‘Nuclear Reactor Crumbles’, ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Thousands Flee Nuclear Fallout’. The stories accompanying such headlines tended to be vague and even contradictory when it came to any detail—had the reactor crumbled, or a building, or a building containing a reactor? Where did the various elements of the plant lie in relation to each other? What did an incident in one building imply for the others? What did terms like ‘meltdown’ actually mean? In contrast to this high color, comments from Japanese nuclear authorities and power company executives that were translated into English came across as ambiguous, cryptic and peculiarly passive, as though they were trying to disguise the gravity of the situation.

Caught between sensationalist offshore reporting and any sense of a solid response in Japan, it was perhaps hardly surprising that so many foreigners joined a panicked exodus out of the country, or at very least further south. One acquaintance promptly decided to take his wife and their two dogs back to New Zealand permanently, resorting at the last minute to a long-term trip to Osaka instead. One family in Christchurch, besieged by phone calls from concerned relatives and friends, brought home a teenager from a three-month home-stay as far south as Gifu Prefecture, unable to determine from news reports exactly how serious the situation was. Yet at the same time, outside the tsunami-hit areas of Japan, including the massive Tokyo metropolis, most Japanese and also foreigners with better access to local information were choosing to continue with their daily lives as best they could amidst rolling power cuts. What accounted for the difference in response, particularly amongst Japan’s foreign population who presumably enjoyed better escape options? The quality of information was surely one major factor—more specifically, the lack of timely, detailed and explanatory information available in English in the media.

Looking first at the time issue, as is perhaps inevitable in the case of crises occurring in countries with different languages, Western reportage often lagged hours and sometimes days behind the Japanese coverage of a rapidly evolving situation. With new information coming in via Japanese-language newspaper reports on the Internet almost on the hour, I was frequently startled by English radio news reports suggesting that the situation had suddenly deteriorated, only to realize that the events in question had occurred half a day before. I was similarly puzzled one evening by a television news ‘update’ showing a purportedly ‘increasingly grim’ Prime Minister Kan at a press conference that actually took place the day before.

Japanese media coverage certainly did a lot more with the information that was available, providing detailed diagrams of the nuclear power plant layout, updates on radiation levels and analyses from nuclear experts. English-language coverage seemed more content to concentrate on the human angle, generally stories from extremely stressed foreigners still in Japan or extremely relieved foreigners escaping Japan, or sketches of worst-case meltdown scenarios, usually peppered with references to Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. A cynic might have observed that one set of media appeared to be attempting to inform and reassure an audience intimately involved in the situation, while the other set was more engaged in the business of selling news of a comfortably distant disaster. A further problem was the tendency of the some journalists to support the alarmist angle of their stories with quotes from groups opposed to nuclear energy such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Beyond Nuclear, and the Institute for Policy Studies without disclosing their particular agendas.
Putting aside the whole issue of their handling of the nuclear power plant crisis, Japanese government officials and power company executives could—and arguably should—have certainly been a lot more forthcoming in their communications, and the loss of public trust that has occurred will hopefully provide some lessons for the future. At the same time, the media must have been aware that officials were pressed by the necessity of reassuring the public while also making people aware that the worst-case scenario was possible, resulting in comments carefully constructed of specific facts and ambiguous statements. It was far from responsible for journalists to report deliberately ambiguous statements as predictions of what would happen or descriptions of what had already happened, creating confusion and alarm worldwide. Ironically, there were cross-cultural communication problems even when reports were entirely accurate. A British translator noted that when the media conveyed officials’ comments almost verbatim from the Japanese, because of the extremely formal, passive constructs typical of Japanese public announcements, their format alone made them seem to some foreigners as an attempt to pass on responsibility, fudge facts and obscure problems.
Fielding requests for updates and explanations from friends inside and outside Japan, my eventual strategy was to check regularly for Japanese media updates, and back these with analyses from blogs operated by groups or persons with more expertise in nuclear engineering and less of an agenda. I relied particularly heavily on the MIT NSE Nuclear Information Hub, created and maintained by the students of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT “not to provide up-to-date information about the ongoing situation at the nuclear facilities in Fukushima, Japan, nor … to promote to a pro-nuclear political agenda … [but rather] to provide non-sensationalized, factual data from engineers in a manner that the general public can understand [and] decipher conflicting news reports and manage the frustrating lack of clarity”. The Atomic Power Review, operated by Will Davis, a former US navy reactor operator, offered similarly in-depth analysis of the emerging data. Both these blogs continue to provide valuable updates even as Fukushima Dai-ichi slides off the front pages in New Zealand and around the world.

As the situation in northeastern Japan stabilizes, foreigners are drifting steadily back into Japan, still uneasy about nuclear power station safety and worried about possible power shortages over summer. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has been attempting to improve communications by setting up an English-language e-mail service providing March 11-related information, but has apparently suffered a few teething problems in terms of getting not only the language but also the intention of its bulletins from Japanese into English. It seems safe to say that English-language media coverage of the nuclear power plant crisis would have been better had it occurred in an English-language environment, or even in a less culturally different environment. At the same time, however, it has been a sobering reminder that the media cannot always be relied upon to engage in in-depth research on and objective analysis of complex but critical issues.

(original article : English)
(For the Japanese version of this article)

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