Keeping in mind that victims in eastern Japan are suffering beyond imagination, my Tokyoite son’s beef with the U.S. media is its false portrayal of the entire country as being in the disaster zone. (See interview with Ry below.)
Unfortunately the media hype fanned a mass exodus from Tokyo that was unnecessary and counterproductive. Had I not had access to someone on the inside, I’d surely have been panicking with the rest of the world.
Is “irresponsible” too strong a word to describe the foreign media coverage? Check out these headlines and decide for yourself:
“JAPAN NUKE DISASTER–PANIC!” (March 16th, New York Daily News, with a picture on the front page of someone with a gas mask on.)
Dark Days for the Empire of the Sun (The Globe and Mail–the headline speaks for itself)
Nuclear Plume May Reach U.S. by Friday (Plume? It’s a made-up media concept to describe non-harmful levels of radioactivity floating in the atmosphere.)
Lots more sensational headlines where these came from, just a Google click away.
We’re Surrounded by Incompetence!
If fear wasn’t enough to push us over the edge, we are bombarded with media incompetence. If you think about it, fear is pretty darn effective at masking incompetence. Any schmuck with a microphone can tell us the sky is falling. And if he says it with enough conviction it just might draw attention away from the fact that he still is just a clueless schmuck with a microphone.
Jon Evans, a journalist and programmer, nails the issue with this comment:
“… the basic problem is that most journalists simply don’t have a clue when it comes to science and engineering. They don’t understand what they’re writing about; they don’t know which questions to ask; they don’t understand that science, unlike the arts, is ultimately about provability and falsifiability, not interpretation and opinion; they don’t know when government advice is reasonable and when it’s terrified CYA boilerplate; and they don’t know when to call bullshit on whatever source they have dredged up to provide “balance,” which they worship beyond all explanation.”
It’s scary that the folks feeding us the news are as ignorant as the rest of us. This is such an important point, because if this assumption is true then it means that the mainstream networks–certainly in the U.S.–are no longer providing value, at least value that we can’t get elsewhere. (One could argue that, in this crisis, the U.S. media caused more harm than good.)
TV critic John Doyle (his remark on Japan’s “contradictions and neuroses” notwithstanding) offers a thoughtful perspective on the foreign media’s inability to explain the subtleties of Japanese culture through a visual medium, and its reporters blatant ignorance about the science behind nuclear power:
There is a certain wonder at the orderly, muted responses in Japan. And that’s one area where television largely fails to inform. It is difficult to explain Japan, to illuminate the layer upon layer of that country’s culture – the insularity, the wariness of foreigners, the imperturbable surface that hides further layers of contradictions and neuroses.
… Also, what we’ve had on TV is some terrible confusion and ignorance about nuclear power and the threat of a nuclear disaster in Japan. The other night, on CNN, Anderson Cooper simply fled the area he was in, in case there was an authentic threat of contamination. How real was that? The answer is unclear.
Considering the looming “nuclear threat” and the Western media’s inability to read the “inscrutable Japanese”, Libya must have started looking mighty attractive to Anderson and the boys. They couldn’t get out of Japan fast enough!
The World Panics, Japan Rolls Up Its Sleeves
“…over the last few days I’ve been watching Japanese press events and thinking, OK, we know what’s happening now. But then you see the Western media reports and you think,”were they just watching the same news conference?” They’d obviously heard a very bad translation of the Japanese and just made up the pieces in-between. Phrases like 一所懸命 (issho kenmei) which means “try to your fullest” or “do the best you can” got translated to “furiously” or “desperately”, words which have totally different meanings.”
Richard Graham (Founder of Genki English)
My son Ry has been going to work every weekday since the disaster struck. Through him I’ve had a kind of front-row seat watching Japan carry on in the aftermath of the disaster.
Ry has been expressing sentiments similar to Mr. Graham’s quote above about media distortions. For his “insider” perspective on life in Tokyo after the disaster, I emailed Ry a list of questions about what happened when the earthquake hit and shortly afterwards, including his thoughts on the foreign media’s coverage of the disaster so far. Here’s our “email interview”:
Were you without power immediately after the quake?
A. No, I was in a newer building. We were watching all of the events
unfold on the TV in our office. The people running the building
stopped running the elevators as a precautionary measure, but
otherwise everything was running as usual.
Were you able to use your laptop and/or access the internet right away?
A. Our internet was fine. The phone lines were jammed but only because
everybody in Japan was trying to contact family and friends in Japan.
What was different about this earthquake?
A. The length was what made me realize that it was a serious quake.
Our building was new so it’s meant to sway more than older buildings
to distribute the force of the earthquake. Being on the 7th floor,
there was a swaying that I had never experienced in my life. What made
it even scarier was when we heard and felt the grinding of the
building under, which I assume was the earthquake technology at work,
keeping the building from collapsing. Also, we looked outside our
window and saw a reflection of the Tokyo tower swaying like it was
going to tip over.
How were people around you reacting during and immediately after the quake?
A. At first we brushed it off as “just another earthquake”. But after
a few seconds we realized it wasn’t your run-of-the-mill earthquake. So
we all got under tables to wait for it to subside. People with
families in the affected areas were frantically trying to contact
loved ones and friends. We stood watching the TV in awe as the tsunami
ravaged the Northeast coast. It was like watching the events of 9-11
A. Not really. Mostly just trying to contact friends and family.
How about your walk home that day, were people panicking, calm?
A. People were very calm. If you had never been to Japan, you would
have had no idea that a natural disaster had occurred a couple hundred miles
What was your first exposure to the U.S. media and how did it jibe
with your experience?
A. Foreign media wasted no time to sensationalize the news. There was
no real disaster in the Tokyo area but the news made it sound like the
country of Japan was going to sink.
When did you realize the magnitude of hype?
A. When friends contacted me from all over the world asking if I was
okay and that they were happy to see me alive.
What wasn’t reported in the foreign press?
A. It was more of a problem with OVER-reporting. Granted, TEPCO failed
at delivering information to the public and media so it exacerbated an
already sensationalized news feed. There seemed to be no coverage of
people being calm and safe in areas other than the affected ones.
What are the media’s flat-out mistakes? Inaccuracies? Lies?
A: The reporting of the nuclear crisis and how it will affect the rest
of Japan and world. (We are putting together a document that shows the
differences in coverage.)
What ticked you off the most (besides mom and I nagging you)?
A: Friends and acquaintances posting sensational news items and status
updates on Facebook. This led to more people freaking out. Which led
to everybody buying up water/food. Also, TEPCO being so damn
incompetent in their information distribution. When the public and
foreign media rely on their own information and assumptions, chances
are that most of that information will be sensationalized to fill the void.
To Leave or Not to Leave
For the record, Ry was offered the option to leave and wait it out in Hawaii–even his closest friends would have been welcome (not a bad option).
He laughed at us. He laughed because the thought never had crossed his mind. He was staying in Japan no matter what.
In retrospect it makes sense that Ry stood his ground.
The recent mass exodus from Tokyo created a “did-you-stay-or-leave” phenomenon, framed by some as a courage-versus-“fraidy-cat” dichotomy. I believe it has more to do with the difference in mentality between visiting a place versus calling it home. It’s easy to understand why a visitor to Japan would want to get the hell out of Dodge (to paraphrase the good Mr. Caintuck) in the shadow of a nuclear meltdown–even it it was safely 180 plus miles away. But for those like Ry who call Japan home, it makes perfect sense they would be looking for every justification not to leave.
Unlike my son, the media anchors were “visitors” to Japan. As visitors with no stake in the country, it must’ve been easy for them to swoop in, induce panic, grab ratings then fly away, pulling droves of terrified people in their wake. The negative effect was it took focus off the victims suffering in Eastern Japan.
It didn’t help my peace of mind that the mass-exodus from Tokyo was well underway the day I boarded a redeye from Honolulu to the mainland on March 14th. As fate would have it, sitting next to me was a frazzled American lady who had just been “evacuated” from her parent company in Japan (a very large Japanese corporation we’ve all heard of). Hearing about the panicked flight out of Tokyo from her, it created a new sense of urgency, and I panicked all the way to O’Hare airport, where I immediately emailed my son to ask if everything was okay.
His answer came quickly and calmly: “Why do you ask?”
It’s unrealistic to expect the media to see the light, embrace the truth, and start reporting responsibly. The system is rigged against it.
The good news is that the vast sources for information on the Internet and social media offer unprecedented alternatives and challenges to mainstream media. With more sources of news than ever before, we now have the ability to compare notes with friends, family, and trusted sources–then broadcast it to the world for more confirmation.
And this brings us to the point of reflection: it’s an exercise to focus us on what we can control. Individually we each have the power to question all information we consume, compare it with as many credible sources as possible, stay connected with those we trust, and develop sufficient critical thinking skills to separate the pepper from the fly shit.
In the next post we’ll look at an unbelievable story we found in the Japanese print media. (So you likely haven’t heard about it yet.) It’s about a remarkable Japanese community of heroes who have much to teach the world about surviving a mega-disaster. Stay tuned.
Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011