The World Panics, Japan Rolls Up Its Sleeves

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
go down.

Any panicking?

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
from Tokyo.

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?”

Upon Reflection

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

9 responses to “The World Panics, Japan Rolls Up Its Sleeves

  1. Aloha Tim! Thank you for writing this post. Ties in with a fascinating book I just finished by Matt Ridley called The Rational Optimist which takes a look at media doom and gloom scenarios from prehistoric times (had never really thought about prehistoric media) to 2100 exploring how prosperity evolved…highly recommended. Quite a provocative, fact based and enjoyable read!

  2. Looking back, I don’t blame people for freaking out. I was gradually becoming annoyed with people offering to “save” me or advising me to leave before I melt.

    Say I was in the states and my friend (or family member) decided they were going to go to the disaster area to help out with relief efforts. I would have found every reason for them not to go. And one of those big reason was because “I heard” that the radiation will spread and potentially kill a ton of people. I may make Chernobyl references to amplify my reasoning. It would be an irrational response to a dire situation. This is what was happening around the world and in Japan. The “better safe than sorry” fight or flight response had kicked in and its hard for people outside of Japan to process what is going on.

    I agree, it would have been nearly impossible for the foreign media to get it right. Imagine if CNN had reported the radiation problem as “stable” or “The coverage is overblown”. CNN may have been scrutinized for taking such a serious problem lightly, “It doesn’t seem so bad if it’s far away does it?”.

    In this case, they were in a lose-(very hard to win) situation. Can you be neutral, positive and trustworthy all at the same time? Probably not.

    Also worth nothing again that because TEPCO had so colossally failed at providing information, the foreigners reliance on western media was necessary.

    TEPCO is being crucified in every way possible by everybody. Being in Japan, it is incredible how hard one company can fall in a matter of weeks.

    Even TEPCOs public apologies have been scrutinized. Even when credible Tokyo University scientists come to their defense, people have shot them down claiming that they are on TEPCOs payroll. TEPCO nationalization is now imminent.

    It’s an interesting time in Japan where people/company’s true colors are bleeding through. If any country can rally from the worlds most expensive natural disaster, its Japan.

  3. Mahalo Tim. My daughter and I were in Tokyo March 10-17 to visit Temple University Tokyo which she considered attending this fall. When the earthquake hit we were outside, walking on a busy street and though people were running out of the buildings, there was no panic so we weren’t too terrified. We did not realize how bad the situation was until we returned to our hotel a couple of hours later and turned on the TV. We couldn’t understand much of the report but the images were terrifying, then we started receiving calls and emails from friends in Hawaii who were concerned for our safety. Anyway, to make a long story short we have been debating whether to still have my daughter attend school in Tokyo and had just decided it would be “safe” . Thanks to your post I feel assured in our decision, and that Japan will recover and the crisis has been hyped up in media here.

  4. As we are discussing media, I couldn’t help but comment about a couple of assertions made here — on this media.

    Tim’s riff about “…non-harmful levels of radioactivity floating…” is perhaps open to further validation of said assessment. An unrelated comment is that Jon Evans’ pronouncement about what constitutes “science and engineering” — that, “unlike the arts, is ultimately about provability and falsifiability, not interpretation…” — should be amended read “crappy science” , as “science” and “engineering” happening without interpretation is how we drop the ball on important aspects of our society.

    Sorry. This sounds a tad terse, but we are discussing the messages, yes?

    Lastly, I’m unclear how to reckon the posited over-sensationalizing, with the apparent reality — as reported on Democracy Now today. (I supp0se they could be full of crap too, but I highly doubt it, from the standards they seem to adhere to.)

    “Radiation at the shoreline of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility has measured several million times the legal limit, just four weeks after the earthquake and tsunami and days after workers discovered a crack where highly contaminated water was spilling directly into the Pacific Ocean.”

    While certainly “sensational” — to tag it as “over-sensational” seems an odd sort of spin too.

    Nonetheless, I hope you are right.

    mahalo,
    Darren

    • I think you are quite right to raise this matter – but the current media handling form is not what we need – it is precisely because these morons are allowed to speak directly to us that we will always get the wrong message – and they DO NOT have the skills or knowledge to handle such messages as we are given them.

      The simple fact is that there are NO safe forms of IonizingRadiations – not even what are referred to as “background radiations” – we can live with background radiations of course (dont forget what the suns rays can do to the skin) – but no radiation is safe -and that should be the bottom line followed by a professional handling of the situation – neither panic driven nor relaxed to the extent that everyone forgets the seriousness of such an issue.

      There was a time when Journalists reported on facts and only facts – these CNN idiots today offer us “we imagine that………….we think that………..we sense that…………it is our opinion that………………..apparently the situation is……………………….”

      We dont want or need their assessment – they arent qualified to give such an assessment and neother should they handle words like Milli Sieverts when they havent a clue what they are talking about.

      Christ almighty – the general public probably think Milli Sievert is Cooper Scooper Anderson’s Girl Friend.

  5. Couldnt agree more re journalists (small j) especially that bloody Cooper Anderson (yeah I know, back to front – on purpose mate).

    And that fukwit Whats Gupta Upta – telling me that the clean up workers were weaing breathing apparatus helmets to protect them against Gamma radiation – haaaaaaaaaaaaa – Gamma is electro magentic and not a solid or a liquid or a gas or any bloody thing else, its Waves (and not the sea either!!) – jesus christ – this is exactly how the public are misinformed – they are unwittingly led by the nose – and lets face it, most people believe Medical Doctors.

    I dont believe one thing that wanker Anderson says – if he told me the Sun had come up this morning I would check it out first.

    And if bloody Gupta told me to take a pill I would pick one up and make him eat it first.

    Sorry, CNN is a pet hate of mine.

    All the best mate.

  6. I think that it is an anti-day, or USA is slightly malicious

  7. Thanks for all the comments. No argument, just wanted to respond to a couple comments.

    @Darren: You’ll never see ME arguing what a harmful radioactive level is: I’m not that smart. The point I was making was that the newspapers throw up a scary headline juxtaposing “nuclear” with the very-scary-sounding word “plume”. (“radioactivity has been released in the atmosphere”, I get it.) Then I read the content of the article and it states that the levels are “believed by scientists to be harmless”, etc. (Or something like that–in retrospect, I should have put “harmless” in quotes.) I hate getting all worked up over a scary headline only to read the fine print telling me otherwise.

    As for Jon Evans pronouncement, while I understand your wariness of trusting scientists, engineers, and “accredited” specialists, etc., I’m simply making the point that I’d rather have someone knowledgeable about science explaining this stuff to me than a guy who, by his own admission, “flunked science”.

    @padiofarty: Anderson should just hand his microphone over to you (with a name like padiofarty you can’t go wrong!) because you made more sense in your two colorful posts here than anything he said throughout this event.

    @Dick: I’m guessing you’re Japanese (based on your email address and comment). Most Americans I know fully support and want to help Japan so it’s not fair to paint all of us with a single brush. In fact, I see the outpouring of goodwill from around the world as proof that Japan has become a very popular country/culture, and it makes me feel proud to be associated with so many people in Japan. In the case of the media, even “malicious” isn’t the right word. My opinion is the media can’t help themselves: they have to exaggerate and sensationalize (dare I say, “over-sensationalize”?) to make money. So I would replace “malicious” with “institutional greed”, although I’m not sure which is worse! Whatever the motivations, the media system is rigged against honest, objective reporting.

  8. Your point is well made. And yet somehow we trust the media’s judgment on things like who makes the most sense among potential presidential candidates. That trust brought us “The One”, need I say more? Maybe this next election cycle, whenever we feel the media manipulating us towards or away from a political candidate we’ll remember this article and think of the media’s irresponsibility and incompetence on this Japan story.

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