OSAKA — Some foreign media coverage of the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has been so extreme it has fanned fears of a deadly radiation cloud descending on Tokyo and turning residents into walking zombies, before drifting across the oceans to menace the United States and Ireland.
According to another “fact,” authorities have been warning those in a position to leave Tokyo to flee the city immediately, because another severe quake or an eruption at Mount Fuji could spark a meltdown at the “Shibuya Eggman nuclear reactor” — which in reality is a live house, or concert hall, in Tokyo.
Laugh if you want, but a large number of domestic and overseas critics charge that such fear-mongering is responsible for causing the international panic over the Fukushima plant, and for persuading many foreign and Japanese residents of Tokyo to leave, either temporarily or permanently.
On the JPquake website, residents of Japan angry at such coverage have created a “journalist wall of shame” comprising nearly 70 reports from foreign television, radio and newspaper companies since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami set off the nuclear crisis. The purpose of the website, its creators say, is to inspire reporting that is factually accurate and less speculative and sensationalist.
For example, Japanese and foreigners who know a little about the country reacted in shocked disbelief when America’s FOX News displayed a map of Japanese nuclear power stations that included the Shibuya Eggman plant in the Tokyo region. It remains a mystery as to how this ended up on a news program watched daily by around 1.8 million people.
In the United Kingdom, the British tabloids went for big, bold headlines when it was revealed that the Fukushima plant was leaking radiation. “Get out of Tokyo Now!” screamed The Sun, the country’s top-selling tabloid with a circulation of 2.9 million.
While not defending such journalistic practices, many foreign correspondents say criticism of foreign media coverage runs the risk of diverting attention from questions about how the Japanese are covering nuclear safety and the Fukushima crisis.
“Undoubtedly, it’s not in anyone’s interest to see exaggerated reporting during a situation of this severity, where the cost of public panic is so high. But that same severity should also not forgive a lack of vigilance,” said Leo Lewis of The Times of London, a former Tokyo correspondent now back in Japan to cover the quake and tsunami.
“It’s a cliche to cite the corrosive effects of the ‘kisha club’ (press club) system on good journalism. But I think it’s clear that in certain matters, including nuclear safety, the Japanese public has not always been well-served by its domestic media,” Lewis said.
“It is a very fine balance. But if the price paid for having a vigilant media is occasional bursts of sensationalism, I’d probably take that over a more acquiescent press whose worst failure is the dereliction of its fourth estate duties,” he said.
The examples cited by media critics may be extreme cases, but media experts following foreign and domestic coverage point out some general differences in the approaches being taken on both sides.
Keiko Kanai, an associate professor of journalism and mass media at Kinki University in Osaka and a former wire service reporter, said foreign media are more pessimistic than their Japanese counterparts about the danger of radiation, and are making more of an effort to include a greater variety of sources.
“Japanese media coverage seems to have led readers and viewers to be extremely skeptical of the degree of reliability of reported information,” Kanai said. “This is because Japan’s media almost solely depend on the prime minister’s office and Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant’s operator) for information, because it’s likely Tepco hasn’t revealed everything they know, and because the Japanese media has been playing down the gravity of the situation because they don’t want to fan people’s fears. This is why they keep repeating the phrase ‘no harm to one’s health’ over and over,” she said.