Taking Stock


A TPM Reader and student of Japan takes a harsh look at US coverage of recent events …

Now that the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant seems to be heading in a better direction, I hope at some time you and many others in the American news business can look back and evaluate their coverage of the event. From my perspective as a scholar of Japan at a major American university―one who was also in Japan when the quake hit (I left one day later than scheduled on the 13th)―I must say that the coverage was, with some exceptions, largely substandard: full of factual errors, misconceptions, and bent towards sensationalism and alarmism. It is very unfortunate that this poor coverage will probably result in many Americans having false conceptions of Japan for years to come.

Accurate, unbiased information is crucial in these crises. I was in Chiba when the first explosion at reactor number 1 took place and the lack of information from TEPCO and the government in the first few hours led to speculation that made all of us in Japan fear for our lives. But information was soon forthcoming that allowed me and all Japanese to more rationally evaluate the situation. There were―and are–still problems with getting information in Japan, but even the Prime Minister has publicly criticized TEPCO for keeping information secret and the Japanese media―as one can tell from the sometimes painfully long press conferences at TEPCO and elsewhere―are largely doing their job and asking the right questions. The national network, NHK, has repeatedly urged the continuous release of certain kinds of information. I believe this has led to significant improvements in the information out there. The Japanese networks continue to bring on specialist reporters and university professors with expertise in nuclear reactors to provide rational analysis and expert commentary.

As a result, the Japanese news coverage has been largely calm, rational, informed, and critical. Some of this is naturally to avoid creating panic, but it has been able to do that because as a whole it has answered many of the questions people have and thus gained a certain level of trust. As a media scholar, I can pick this coverage apart for its problems, and of course point to information that is still not getting out there, but on the whole it is functioning as journalism should.

It also just looks good because there is something so ugly beside it: the non-Japanese coverage. That, I am afraid, has been full of factual errors and other problems. This has not been just Fox News, but also CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and even the New York Times to differing degrees. They get the reactors mixed up or report information that is simply wrong (e.g., writing that the TEPCO workers had fully abandoned the effort to control the plant because of radiation levels when TEPCO had only withdrawn some non-essential personnel). They are perpetually late, continuing to report things the Japanese media had shown to be wrong or different the day before. They are woefully selective, bringing out just the sensational elements (“toxic clouds” over Tokyo―when in fact radiation in Tokyo now is actually less than that in LA on some days). They are misleading (implying for instance that the dumping of water from the air was some last ditch effort to cool the core, when it was just an effort to replenish the water in the spent rod pools―which are now full in reactor 3 and back to normal temperature). Colleagues have noted problems with European coverage as well, but the difference between media can be obvious:


I for one cannot understand why ABC, for instance, could feature Michio Kaku multiple times over several days when by the time his declarations of imminent disaster, the situation on the ground had already proven him wrong.

Of course fear sells newspapers, but in unfortunate cases, the coverage is rooted in long-standing prejudices held by some Westerners against the non-West: for instance, a superiority complex that feels only the West and its media have real access to the truth, which led to a downplaying of Japanese media reports. In the worst cases, there has been simple racism, as some reporters when viewing how calm the Japanese are, seem to think the Japanese are mere robots who cannot grasp the immensity of the crisis or, as one colleague reports when a Spanish reporter interviewed her, think that the Japanese are genetically tuned to accept disaster. It is ironic that such reports assume such an attitude when, at the same time through their own inaccuracies, they show how much better the Japanese coverage is.

There are results to this irresponsible journalism. Many foreigners in Japan who do not have the language capabilities to access Japanese media or who are used to foreign media are in a state of panic, when around them Japanese are largely calm. People in California start searching for iodide pills on the internet and there are already people voicing worries about whether Japanese cars are now all going to be radioactive. But worst of all, the inordinate and sensationalist attention given to the reactors by American and other media has taken attention away from where it should be: on the likely nearly 20,000 people who died in the quake and tsunamis, on the nearly 400,000 homeless people, and on the immense suffering this has caused for Japan as a whole. I cannot but think that the low amounts of donations given by Americans to relief efforts is not at least partially the result of this warped coverage.

Some media sources are beginning to criticize this coverage:


But there could be a lot more.

TPM has of course done little original reporting on the event, but merely passed on other reports. But when the story it reprinted on the 18th stated that the situation “continues to worsen”―even though it clearly had gotten better by that time–it should begin to think about its own responsibility in participating in this media hysteria.

Japanese people and government officials will have to spend many years investigating all that went wrong in this accident. I feel it is likely that many at TEPCO and in the government will be found at fault for inadequate preparation, overly optimistic projections, willful ignorance, and just plain lying to the public. This will be an investigation in which the Japanese media will play an important part. But the non-Japanese media should also look at itself and see where it went wrong―so that it can better prepare for a similar accident which, unfortunately, is not altogether impossible in the United States as well.

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