In retrospect, I should have had this idea before, but I guess today I just hit critical mass (not sure if it’s appropriate to use a nuclear energy turn of phrase here): one too many pieces of bad journalism.
So I decided to start a wiki Bad Journalism Wall of Shame and invite some of the other people who were frustrated with some of the shoddy, alarmist, and shockingly wrong journalism we’ve seen since last Friday’s Tohoku quake.
I take everything I read with a grain of salt these days, and have for many years. When I read an article or see a television report that makes sensational claims, I try to fact check on my own, because I no longer trust most journalists to have done it for me. There are several major areas that journalists particularly suck at:
- Science reporting. I have a degree in fine arts, and I could write better science articles than most science writers could. Any journalist who suggested that Fukushima could be “another Chernobyl” should be made to retake his 9th grade science class and then have his journalist license revoked. Oh wait…
- Reporting on Japan. JAPAN IS SOOO WEIRD! JAPANESE PEOPLE HAVE NO EMOTION! If everything you think you know about Japan was learned from the movies Gung Ho and Mr. Baseball, then maybe you’re not qualified to write an article about Japan. Also, spending a few days, hell, even a month in Japan (probably in a hotel or furnished apartment, or otherwise isolated location) does not make you an expert on the place. Nor does interviewing someone who has lived here for a few months (or even year, if living in one of the many gaijin bubbles).
- Disaster reporting. Two and a half words: Exaggeration and fear-mongering.
This is not new information. Not to me, and probably not to you. However, in the aftermath of the quake, all three of these elements joined together to create (to use a term journalists are so fond of using themselves) the “perfect storm”. News piece after news piece full of inaccuracies, misinterpretations, and just plain lies. (My favourites are the photos, shown out-of-context. For instance, showing a photo of a girl in a surgical-style mask and implying that she was wearing it due to radiation, while the reality is that we’re in allergy season here and many people wear masks to keep pollen at bay.)
The worst offenders are the 24-hour news networks. A few hours into the quake, I stopped looking at them. The problem there (as we learned during the 9/11 coverage) is that the anchors feel like they have to keep talking to fill dead air, which means that they inevitably end up saying dumbass things.
But no news source gets off scot free. Some seem to make stuff up, others seem to repeat rumours floating around in the electronic ether, while others interview obvious idiots or crazies and take what they say as gospel truth. Some, I think, pick information up from another news source, and never bother to check it for accuracy.
Journalists are important. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t be writing this, because I wouldn’t care. They are as important as doctors, or soldiers, or firemen. And they often get paid significantly less than all three. If I was prone to hyperbole, I would say something like “journalists are the shoulders upon which freedom stands”, but I’m not, so I’ll just say good journalists are heroes.
Bad journalists, then, like bad doctors (think Doctor Moreau), bad soldiers, and bad firemen (I guess arsonists, then) make the world a worse place to live in.
Okay, like what?
In the case of this disaster, here is my list:
- Incited a level of panic among people worldwide about Nuclear energy (pro or anti, I don’t care, but let’s talk facts, not histrionics)
- Incited a level of panic among people worldwide regarding OH MY GOD NU-CLEE-AR WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!
- Incited panic among foreign residents in Japan
- Caused significant worry to the families, friends, and loved ones of those of us foreigners living in Japan. Several people I know have left Japan, not because they were concerned about danger, but because their families were so stricken about the perceived danger they felt they had leave in order to comfort them
- Probably (hard to measure) have caused economic damage to Japan due to foreign companies pulling out their people and, in some cases, talking about shutting down their Tokyo offices “due to radiation.”
- Once again mischaracterized the Japanese people to fit their lazy stereotypes
Okay, so what’s the point of making a Wall of Shame for bad journalism? Someone on Twitter implied that I was starting a witch-hunt and that we should be contacting journalists and publications directly and pointing out their errors. Firstly, that is impractical. There are too many. Secondly, a witch-hunt implies that I will ruthlessly prosecute people I perceive to be guilty but who are actually innocent. All the items posted are available for anyone to read and check against the facts.
The point of this exercise is simply to provide negative feedback to journalists who are, as we perceive it, not doing their jobs. (And positive feedback: I’ve also started a Good Journalism wiki page for pieces that really shine.) This may only end up being of interest to those of us who live here, but I think it’s important.
And crap it’s getting really late. There is so much more I could write, but I really need to sleep.
I leave you with this: life goes on as usual in Yokohama.