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Documenting disaster

by Anthony Fensom

THE TOHOKU EARTHQUAKE and Tsunami, the Fukushima Nuclear Reactor, and How the World’s Media Reported Them, by Eric Johnston. The Japan Times, 2011, 96 pp., ¥1,260 (paperback)

Seven months after Japan’s devastating March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters, the jury remains out on media reporting of the crisis. Did the domestic media downplay public health risk while their foreign counterparts titillated audiences with exploitative “disaster porn”?

While such a generalization is overly simplistic, elements of both the Japanese and U.S. media have engaged in a degree of soul searching over their disaster coverage. Their verdict: “must try harder.”

Those seeking a clear grasp of the main issues should look no further than The Japan Times deputy editor Eric Johnston’s excellent overview, “The Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, the Fukushima Nuclear Reactor, and How the World’s Media Reported Them.”

Written in concise, news-style English with Japanese translations, the book provides some much-needed context to the media’s disaster coverage that should prove of interest to concerned readers anywhere.

A 23-year American resident of Japan, Johnston uses his experience to assess the impact of the local reporting by Japanese and foreign correspondents, as well as that of the media “stars” flown in from abroad.

Japan’s international importance as a media “story” had been on the wane prior to the disasters. Suddenly, on March 11 it was unwillingly propelled to the TV screens and front pages of overseas media, with emotive headlines such as “sea of death” and “nuclear winter.”

“Normally the streets bustle like nowhere else on Earth. But I look outside now and they’re completely deserted. It’s like London in the zombie movie ’28 Days Later,’ ” British tabloid, The Sun, quoted Tokyo resident and expatriate Briton, Keely Fujiyama as saying in one particularly sensationalist report.

Meanwhile, the immediate post-disaster focus of the Japanese media was on evacuees rather than nuclear worries, with one publication, weekly magazine AERA, forced by critics to apologize over its headline, “Radioactivity is coming.”

The fact that many early reports condemned as sensationalist later proved more accurate than official statements is not lost on many observers. While noting the efforts of critics such as the Wall of Shame website, which highlighted inaccurate reports, Johnston points out the generalist nature of most reporters and the difficulty of addressing complex scientific issues like nuclear power in simple media formats.

While acknowledging its faults, the foreign media’s rebuttal to its critics is summarized as: “Which [is] better? A skeptical media that warns too much of potential dangers, or a passive media that doesn’t warn you enough?”

The correct policy is clearly the former, writes Johnston, who admires “the finest traditions of British newspaper journalism … informed skepticism, accuracy, courage and a literate style that aims for the truth rather than a mere collection of facts.”

Despite the various international media codes of conduct, including the American Society of News Editors’ “Statement of Principles,” such standards failed to prevent some of the worst media excesses of the crisis, including a Fox News report that depicted a Tokyo nightclub as a secret atomic site.

However, Johnston argues that the cure is worse than the disease. Admitting that many foreign media had a commercial motive in exploiting the tragedy, he nevertheless asserts that “if the price of a free press and freedom of speech is the existence of a tabloid media that is sometimes excessive or misleading, then it’s a bargain.”

Ironically, those arguing for greater Japanese knowledge for overseas journalists might be careful in what they wish for, given Johnston’s statement that certain reports from Japanese tabloid media and bloggers were “often just as if not more biased, mistaken and sensationalist as the worst foreign media reports.”

In assessing the lessons from the crisis, Johnston casts some blame at Japan’s “press club” system for making officials and media complacent and less transparent, along with the “Galapagos” mentality of inwardness. On the foreign side, he criticizes anti-nuclear “propaganda” and ignorance bordering on racism toward the Japanese people.

Undoubtedly, the issues raised in Johnston’s work will be debated for some time yet, and require far more depth of analysis and detail than that given in a brief digest.

True objectivity concerning the media is impossible to find, and critics might point to the author’s long-term Japan residency as an inherent bias.

Yet Johnston makes an important contribution to a debate that continues to rage, even in apparent bastions of media freedom such as Britain. In contrast, Japanese faith in their media has remained steadfast, with a recent poll showing 80 percent continue to trust newspaper reports.

This year’s tragic events have resulted in greater public awareness and political participation, the strengthening of civic society and a push for greater openness from government, lawmakers and industry. Should this new spirit of communication continue, aided by international goodwill, then Japan has the best opportunity for decades to gain the media coverage it truly deserves.