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Local broadcasters remain calm during the quake crisis

by Philip Brasor

More than a week after the massive earthquake and tsunami of March 11, Japan’s commercial broadcasters are still weighing the crisis as it develops. The weekend following the catastrophe, all planned programming was canned for round-the-clock coverage of the tragedy, and whatever you want to say about the choice of visuals there was certainly plenty to choose from: video footage both professional and amateur showing the destruction as it happened in horrifying real time. By Monday morning, many of these images had become etched in our brains and in the brains of people in faraway countries. The reaction was the same: Utter disbelief at the scale of the disaster. But people overseas didn’t have to contend with the uneven tone of the local coverage.

If there is a unifying theme to this coverage, it’s “ remain calm,” which means the media has had to qualify its mission to be truthful and helpful with the need to ensure that what they say doesn’t cause alarm. That became virtually impossible as aftershocks continued, and the effort to keep matters cool but informative has faltered on occasion, nowhere more obviously than in the coverage of the damaged Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

As they do with any major ongoing news story, TV stations call on experts to provide background and commentary, and the parade of bad toupees and nervous tics that passes as Japanese academia’s nuclear power punditry seemed endless. Half of these men were from the University of Tokyo, while the rest taught at the Tokyo Institute of Technology (Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s alma mater), but what most of them had in common was a pronounced inability to explain what was happening in terms that newspeople could understand, much less utilize.

In most cases, the expert didn’t realize he was incomprehensible, due to the fact that he had never had to explain this stuff to laymen, only to students and fellow experts. The newspersons’ requests for further elucidation often led to comical exchanges in which the two interlocutors kept repeating themselves. Media literacy implies an attendant skill at reading between the lines, but these pundits were making it increasingly difficult to read anything. Reporters became impatient and asked, “Is this actually serious?” to which the pundit would answer, “Well, I can’t say because I’m not there . . .”

Viewers required a franker presentation of the situation so that they could understand the “seriousness,” a word the media used instead of “danger.” Later in the week, the nuclear power pundits were replaced by medical professionals, who were so relaxed they made radiation sound like pollen.

The coverage by overseas outlets has been the opposite of relaxed. They could be as alarmist as they wanted to be, predicting clouds of radioactivity descending on Tokyo like some fog out of a Stephen King novel. And it worked: Foreign residents, especially those who rely on non-Japanese media for their news, are leaving the country in droves. Alarmism is a luxury media outlets can enjoy when they know they have no stake in the matter, and CNN, for one, used sensationalism to cover up for the fact that it had no reason to be here in the first place. “How scary is this for you?” one of its reporters asked a resident of the afflicted area who had just lost everything.

The local media does have a direct stake in the matter and their coverage of the stricken region has been excellent in that it aims to be productive. One TBS reporter insisted on asking victims what they needed most. Many said kerosene, and later that day a merchant in a nearby town had some delivered to an evacuation center.

What was lacking in the local coverage was any stated skepticism toward the official line. The reactor crisis news cycle was first dominated by statements from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, whose lack of clarity became a leitmotif. NISA, a government body whose whole reason for being is to support the nuclear energy industry, eventually retreated to the relative safety of Koriyama, leaving hapless representatives of Tokyo Electric Power Co. to answer reporters’ questions. They were often more circuitous than the pundits (who were probably their professors in college), and the explanations strained the press’ patience. “Please stop telling us how you feel,” said one reporter uncharacteristically during a TEPCO news conference. “Just tell us what’s going on!”

Such exasperation is the result of more than just crisis burnout. Because Japan’s nuclear energy program is national policy, like lethal research whaling, the mainstream media feels it has to accept it. Only circumstances, like the response to an actual reactor accident, require hard-hitting questions, not the policy itself. And while the policy certainly deserves more scrutiny in light of the current crisis, there’s even less of a chance of the mainstream media giving face time to Japan’s antinuke element during the crisis. Now’s the time for action, not debate.

What’s strange is how thoroughly the Japanese media can cover the reactor accident without implying that it might be a bad policy, even when it becomes obvious that it could lead to thousands of people becoming sick. Last week, Sunday Mainichi ran an article suggesting that TEPCO’s planned blackouts were a form of PR: Show people how important those nuclear reactors are by demonstrating how inconvenient their lives are without them.

It seems impossible that the public would emerge from this disaster without a greater appreciation of the dangers of nuclear energy, though sometimes you wonder. Because of the disaster, the Japanese arm of Paramount Pictures just announced it was postponing the planned opening of “Countdown to Zero,” a documentary advocating for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Surely the public understands the difference between atomic bombs and atomic reactors, but who wants to take that chance?

Philip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com.