Foreign media take flak for fanning fears

It’s official. No doubt from now we will see the edifying spectacle of the media industry eating itself: making news out of its own incompetence. My relatives abroad have been most concerned about my safety: I sent them 3 articles. None of them were from a mainstream source.

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 [as reported here by Marketing Japan]. 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. Japan Times, Mar 21 Link: http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/nn20110321f1.html

via Foreign media take flak for fanning fears.

The Japan Times article includes this quote from Leo Lewis of the London Times:

“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.

But the media have NOT been vigilant, Leo: that is not their job, and your pompous “fourth estate duties” line is bullshit and everyone knows it. The media’s job is to entertain and to sell eyeballs to advertisers. Journalists’ jobs are to sell newspapers. So we get headlines like ” Fukushima workers exposed to illegal radiation levels” or (from the Japan Times’ own page, just scroll down to Related Links) “Iodine from plant detected in Tokyo“. This catches the attention by exploiting fear.

The Fukushima workers were exposed to radiation limits higher than normal, but not illegal, because the government had raised the legal exposure dosage to 250 mSv earlier, as the very same Guardian article explained! This raised dosage level is in line with SOP in the event of a life-threatening emergency.

Yes, iodine has been found in Tokyo tap water, but how much? “Traces”. What does that mean? “Amount detectable but not enough to be quantified.” Now, do you want to panic?

I’ve said over and over again, that what people needed at this crisis was knowledge that gives a frame of reference for  the information flooding out from the TV and newspapers: “radiation 10 times normal levels!” screams the headline. But is that a dangerous amount? Will you die on the spot? Are you guaranteed cancer? Without a frame of reference that can provide perspective, people will tend to panic. Here’s a classic example! Is this an example of a “vigilant media”? 

Frame-0f-refence knowledge is available, like this excellent chart of radiation dosages. On the Internet. But not from the mainstream media. I found the chart by following the Tweets from a blog called BraveNewClimate.

A couple of regular TV programs, notably Mino Monta’s morning show, did notice this need and responded to it after about the 5th or 6th day (see here and here). I have not found anything similar in “the fourth estate”. I think that tells you all you need to know about what it thinks its “duties” really are.

The Japan Times article refers to a “Journalists Wall of Shame”, which you can find here: http://jpquake.wikispaces.com/Journalist+Wall+of+Shame : “If you want to know why we’re doing this, check out my blog entry Why Bad Journalism Has Driven Me To Desperate Ends

The same wikispace has now added a Blogger Wall of Shame:  http://jpquake.wikispaces.com/Blogger+Wall+of+Shame

The Japan Times article quotes :

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.

“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.” With no examples or links to sources, it’s difficult to assess what she means. “More pessimistic than their Japanese counterparts” could be another way of saying “more prone to exaggeration” or “less likely to rely on facts and more likely to rely on rumour” or “more likely to use fear-inducing headlines”.

Ms Kanai provides no examples or evidence for “readers and viewers” who are “extremely skeptical of the degree of reliability of reported information”, nor even for her statement that “Japan’s media almost solely depend on the prime minister’s office and Tepco for information”.  I saw TV shows that were also interviewing people in the Fukushima City Hall, for instance.

And surely not wanting to fan people’s fears is a laudable intention, and it is not the same thing as “playing down the gravity of the situation.” The former means not reporting unsubstantiated rumour; the latter means actively distorting the truth by leaving out crucial information.


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