Sunday, March 20, 2011

Earthquakes, nuclear disasters, and an alarmist media

It has been a long week. Thank you to everyone who posted over the last week, I really appreciate it. It is now Sunday night, 9 days after the Tohoku earthquake. The earthquake caused a tsunami which pounded the coast of Tohoku, the region north of Tokyo. It destroyed ports, towns, cars, homes, and took an unknown number of lives. They are still counting the dead, still looking for the dead. The images which flooded the internet and the television look like a warzone.

In Tokyo, however, people have been somewhat distracted from the horror of the earthquake and tsunami's effects by the malfunctioning of the Fukushima I nuclear power plant. Located conveniently next to the ocean, its systems malfunctioned after a pounding by the tsunami, leading to a nuclear accident and frantic attempts to get the plant back under control. The first explosions took place on the day after the earthquake, and the situation deteriorated from there. Much has been written about the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and their less than stunning track record, and there has been a lot of criticism in the press of the government.

The thing that has really annoyed me, however, was the media. The situation is of course very bad. Reactor buildings exploding and increased radiation levels are generally not a good thing. But the media loves a good story, of course. And "the world is ending" is a much better story than "this is a problematic situation of limited scope that a lot of people are working hard to fix". I can't really talk directly about the nuclear situation, as I was not there, but I can talk about the situation in Tokyo.

Everyone was of course shaken up, both literally and figuratively, by the earthquake and its aftershocks, and by the news of what had happened in Tohoku. Then when the Fukushima plant became an issue in the days after the quake everyone started worrying about that. The French and Germans were the first to leave en masse, with their embassies advising their people to leave.

Over the next few days a number of other countries changed their advice and suggested that their citizens leave. Some countries, such as the US and UK, organized flights for their citizens out. Many people took to their heels and headed across to western Japan to await the worst. There were food shortages resulting from hoarding and power shortages that reduced lighting and train services. But the world didn't end. Media from all over the world, eager to scream and shout, were more than happy to find the most scared or paranoid person they could, interview them, and then broadcast their rantings as fact.

This led people overseas with family in Japan to freak out and demand that those living in Japan leave or go to another part of Japan before the nuclear plant blew up and spread radiation all over Tokyo, ushering in the end of the world as we know it. The scientists generally seemed to be saying that even in the worst case scenario Tokyo would be fine. But for the most part the media beat up the story as much as they could, creating an environment of fear that led some to flee. They didn't flee totally without reason, of course.

Last night I was in Shibuya for a goodbye party. Incidentally, this was for a planned departure, not for a "I'm freaking out and jumping on the first plane home" departure. It was a bit dimmer than usual, with some lights off to conserve power, and the huge screens over the Hachiko crossing not blasting J-pop for once. But the streets were still pretty crowded with young people in crazy clothes and odd hairstyles. The restaurants were still open. The convenience stores, like the supermarkets, are not quite as well stocked as usual, but they are far from empty.

The paranoia seems to be subsiding somewhat. I'm not sure if FDR was 100% correct when he said that "we have nothing to fear but fear itself", but he was definitely onto something. The worst appears to be over. I might be wrong, but I think from now things will gradually get back to normal, and the long slow task of rebuilding will begin. I am fortunate in that I don't know anyone who was killed or injured, but a lot of people have not been as fortunate. It definitely helps put things into perspective.


  1. Hey, D.R., I'm glad that you didn't know anyone hurt or killed, and that perhaps some of the severity of the situation has been magnified by the media and might not be accurate, from what you're saying. I have seen media do things like that before, here in the U.S., when they get onto a hot topic it gets blown up so that it sounds like, "the world is ending" or something of similar proportions. Stories make money for media conglomerates. I hope that the radiation doesn't get into the food and water supply in Japan, because that sounds like one of the scarier things that has been recently reported here. I hope the radiation levels are not high enough to be causing health problems. One reporter mentioned that even though levels are higher than normal, actually "normal" is lower than when you get an x-ray or a cat scan. I've had numerous cat scans and MRI's for health problems, and sometimes I wonder if this will lead to cancer, since radiation is a frightening thing. It's interesting some countries are telling people to leave, but others aren't. I suppose Australia has not said anything about citizens evacuating, or you probably would have mentioned that. Well, thanks for the update and I'm glad you and your friends are doing okay!

  2. Yep the media is really starting to annoy me too. Over here there are literally no reports about the rescue effort or survivors. All the reports are about Fukushima and radiation poisoning and some of them are really trivial. My Dad wrote a letter to News 24 in SA challenging them to write one story of hope or good news about Japan. Today they reported a story about a 16-year old boy and his 80- year old grandmother being found alive.

    I'm glad you keeping a level head about all of this but still take care. I guess if I had a loved one in the worst hit areas of Japan or around the nuclear plant, just judging by the pictures I've seen, I would want them to leave.

    Thanks for the update, things will get better!

  3. @Jen - radiation is a worry, and if I am honest, I really don't understand it. But the scientific consensus seems to be that it is actually not so bad, and the effects of radiation are greatly overblown. On the other hand, the effects of the tsunami and earthquake were very real and very devastating.

    Actually, Australia suggested that its citizens leave too, which I neglected to mention in my blog post. I ignored that as I ignored all the other embassies advice.

    @Stephi - Good on your dad for writing to News24. I'm not sure that it is necessary to run "good news stories", but it would be better if they focused on the more important story, which in this case is the tsunami damage. Of course, they already did that, then they went nuts about the nuclear "apocalypse" before losing interest and chasing the story about Libya. Sometimes the media seems like a kid with ADD.

    For people within a few kilometers of the plant I think leaving would be a pretty good idea. For those of us in Tokyo or further away I don't think there is much cause for concern. That said, it has been pretty stressful over the last ten days or so.

  4. I had thought the same about the media and causing mass panic, etc. I wanted to watch the news while I prayed for Japan, it's people and situation. However it was so draining and frustrating to watch esp. the U.S. news media go over and over and over dooms day possibilities. It also made me angry when people here were worried about possible traces of radiation getting to Cali & the U.S. I not only thought it was rideculous, but also Extremely selfish and completely self-centered on the part of those 'worried' compared to what the people in those destroyed areas of Japan.

    I am very glad you are still ok D.R. and that you are keeping your perspective in reality!

    Take care!!! ~ Coreen xoxoxo

  5. Hi Coreen,
    The same panicky feelings that you talk about in the US were also present in China, and what people thought in Tokyo was only slightly more irrational. The nuclear bogeyman is a very frightening one, and the media is happy to beat up the story to get the best ratings it can.

    Thanks for your concern, and I'm trying to keep it real!

  6. This article is 100% correct! Everyday the media is going back and forth on whether the nuclear crisis is serious or not. The media always likes to build up fear. I pray everyday for the people of Japan, your country needs love and support but not fear.

  7. Hi Paula,
    Yes, less fear would be good. Unfortunately fear seems to rate much better than calm reasoned discussion, and until that stops the media is unlikely to change. It is a vicious cycle.

  8. Hi,

    I am a university student in England and currently doing my dissertation in the role in which media play in the mediation of insecurity in people. What happened in Fukushima is my case study and this blog has been very interesting to read. I think it is good that some people (like us) realise the media’s game and why it produces such coverage. What is worrying is that most people don’t and they are forced into the game and into the messages the media wants them to believe. The news has to stay fresh every day so the media does not care too much whether it is true or not as long as they think it is interesting to the viewer. I think insecurity is one of the products the media seems to give off which keep the viewer hooked to the story, just like a film thriller. I was wondering whether anyone knew whether the coverage of Fukushima was in any way different to what happened in Chernobyl 25 years ago? Any other comments or thoughts would be viewed with great interest!

  9. Hello Anonymous,
    I suppose the media has to have content with a constant sense of urgency or danger, or people switch off, literally. The 24 hour news cycle is probably something of a curse, really. I was a child when Chernobyl happened so I don't really remember the media coverage, I'm afraid. I would imagine their would have been much less information to hand given the fact it was in the heavily-censored Soviet Union and media technology was much less advanced. But I'm just guessing.

  10. Yeah, you are right. Back then the relations between the soviet union and the usa were very strained so it had an influence on the ways media reported the incident. Do you think that the media footage of the nuclear disaster is similar to that of a terrorist attack, in terms of producing insecurity and anxiety? I mean like you said nuclear and radiation can be very unclear issues that the viewer does not know much about and sometimes the media talk about like should know about it.

  11. Hi Tom,
    I'm no expert but I would say it is similar. They are both bad situations which people are afraid about - probably much too afraid for the amount of danger that is really there. They are both situations that a 24 hour media can run wild with, bring on talking heads with doomsday scenarios to unsettle people and keep them watching. Until the next big story comes along and they run along to that.