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The venerable Japan Times has posted an article by Eric Johnston on the reaction of people living here to the bad reporting that has gone on in (mostly, but not only) the international media following the Tohoku quake and its aftermath. You can read it here.
The first half of the article deals with describing the issue, including some of the worst errors (such as the famous Shibuya Eggman “power plant”). The second half of the article sets up the argument that “occasional bursts of sensationalism” are the price we pay for “a vigilant media”, as if there is no ground in-between.
I agree that the Japanese media is frequently complacent and derelict in its duties. I sometimes get the feeling that investigative journalism here is a much rarer bird than it is in the west. By the same token, the Japanese media can also sensationalize when dealing with stories from abroad (I lost my first job in Japan due to the over-the-top coverage here of the SARS “epidemic” in Toronto). So if anyone thinks I’m giving the local media a pass, you can forget it.
However, in this case, they are not the problem. They might be mostly reporting on information released from TEPCO and the government, but what else can they report on? Radiation is also being measured by independent parties, including amateurs, and my impression is that they are reporting on that as well. This is supplemented my commentary from actual scientists in the field. (Not to mention the fact that last week we heard a reporter go for the jugular of a TEPCO executive when he tried to apologize rather than offer information! Finally!) But don’t worry: I’m not holding the domestic media up as a shining example.
The main problem that this Japan Times article fails to address is things like:
- Radiation readings being given without context. MY GOD! RADIATION IN TOKYO XX TIMES NORMAL LEVELS! Sure, but what does that mean? Hint: http://xkcd.com/radiation/
- photographs being captioned in inaccurate ways (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12770263 – Photo 5, a caption about Sendai (pop. 1,000,000) and the “few buildings that remained standing” was absolutely true—about Minami Sanriku, the city (pop. 20,000) in the photograph.
- Easily-checked facts not checked (http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/953810–dimanno-sense-of-helplessness-has-settled-over-japan#article – “Tokyo residents commonly wear face masks to protect themselves from fumes and smog…” Actually, from pollen, or when they have colds; she also mentions a “bullet train” to Narita, but there is no such train.
- Unsubstantiated claims: http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/uk-world-news/2011/03/16/japanese-tsunami-thousands-flee-tokyop-as-radiation-levels-reach-danger-levels-and-fears-of-meltdown-at-nulcear-plant-grow-86908-22993048/ “The Fukushima Daiichi complex was rocked by a third explosion early yesterday – and blazing fires in a fourth reactor sparked full-scale panic.” Excuse me? Panic? When? Where?; “Many Tokyo residents who chose not to head for the hills were locked up in their homes…” While it could be technically true, as many people all over the world lock their doors, the impression it gives is false.
- Use of misleading language: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1366920/Japan-earthquake-tsunami-UN-predicts-nuclear-plume-hit-US-Friday.html “Radiation from the toxic plume spewing from the reactor is set to hit California and the West Coast by Friday…” before going on to say: “On Sunday, the U.S. Nuclear Regulator Commission said it expected no harmful levels of radiation would reach the U.S. from Japan given the thousands of miles between the two countries.” Really? Then why use “toxic plume”? ; Also gratuitous mentions of Hiroshima.
- Lazy cultural generalizations like the Japanese don’t show emotion (anyone watching victim interviews on NHK would know this wasn’t true), and calling the Chinook helicopter pilots “Kamikaze”.
- Weasel talk: “Some experts say…”; “Many who live here say…” – When what your “sources” say is an extraordinary claim, we expect some evidence to back it up.
This is just a taste of what we’ve seen in the last week, but don’t get me wrong: nobody wants a press that just sits back and takes officials’ words as gospel truth, but we need investigative journalists, not journalists who turn and twist limited information in order to make their stories more interesting.
Finally, you can’t turn around and say “well, the Japanese media does a really terrible job” and then use that to excuse the international media! That’s like saying that Americans’ complaints about China’s human rights abuses must be entirely dismissed while Guantanamo Bay remains open!
And don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful to Mr. Johnston for at least bringing up the issue in an official forum, even if the conclusion of the article seemed to be a smug “well, let’s keep the status quo”.
Blah! Did I just waste two hours of my life putting this together?
Allow me to leave you with this. Another plum blossom from my plum tree (didn’t take any new photos today or yesterday).