Last week, workers at the Fukushima nuclear plant began cooling the rods with sea water. Their effort, while not always successful, was deliberate and measured. Shame the same wasn’t true of the foreign reaction.
The US news media has been, to put it mildly, alarmist – in direct contrast with the Japanese media. That isn’t to say the Japanese media is never sensational. When the swine flu scare was in full swing, Japanese news programs showed close-ups of the virus and ran segments, showing how a single person sneezing on a subway train could spread the virus throughout the carriage. Ominous music was employed and on-screen letters were rendered with fonts that seemed more at home on a horror film poster.
Yet, the Japanese news coverage is showing more restraint that usual. Perhaps it’s the lives that were lost or are still at stake. Perhaps it is the seriousness of the situation. There are those who believe that the Japanese media is part of a large cover-up (there always are). But the whole world is watching. Too bad everyone isn’t seeing correct information.
The below image is from Fox News, and it’s been doing the Twitter rounds after popping up on Media Matters. It shows a map of the nuclear power plants located throughout Japan. The “Sendai” plant is in fact correct, as website Japan Subculture points out, but this Sendai (川内) power plant is about a thousand miles from the city of Sendai (仙台). Fox did get that part correct. But the news network ended up listing “SHIBUYAEGGMAN” as a nuclear power plant.
Shibuya Eggman is not a nuclear power plant. It is a music venue in Shibuya. The venue’s official site has a heartfelt statement pertaining to those lost and impacted by the recent natural disasters, adding in English, “Shibuya Eggman has no nuclear plant.” Eggman says its electricity is powered “only by music”.
How could Fox News think that something called “Shibuya Eggman” could actually be a nuclear plant? The 31-year-old venue is known to Tokyoites, but to those outside the country, it might be more familiar to those playing Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic nemis Doctor Eggman was evil, and there were nuclear weapons – well, at least in the Archie comics. So maybe that’s how Fox News made the mistake. Maybe?
People make mistakes. It happens. Fox News, of course, is aware of the goof, and the network’s Andy Levy conceded as much to Jake Adelstein at Japan Subculture. This mistake, however, is quickly becoming emblematic of just one of many mistakes being made in the recent Japan coverage, coverage that often overlooked and completely ignored the quake and tsunami victims. Japanese television showed young students holding up signs on television, hoping to find classmates that disappeared; an old man on a bicycle with a flashlight searching for his wife; a mother and son embracing in a community centre after being reunited. US coverage focused on nuclear reactors.
Japanese television, which so often runs the spectrum of stupid, generally showed the whole range of emotions and stories these events played out. Someone asked me what I thought of the Japanese television coverage. Considering how Japanese reporters can talk to victims and understand press conferences, I thought it was pretty good.
That doesn’t mean the entire foreign media got it wrong or only Japanese people can write about Japan. That doesn’t mean that at all. “You could see the difference in reporting between outlets that had bureaus in Japan,” says reporter Leo Lewis of The Times, “and those who decided to close their bureaus – that their readers or viewers didn’t think Japan was that important.” Over the past ten years, newspapers, magazines and TV news outlets have been either closing their Japan bureaus or reduced their size. Reporters were, in turn, shifted to China as China was the future. Japan is so 20th century.
Yet, when it really mattered, when reporters with the ability to speak the language and with experience living in Japan were really needed, much of the foreign press was caught flat-footed. “Reporters with experience living in Japan,” adds Lewis, “would be able to judge foot traffic on Ginza on a weekday or know that the reason everyone was wearing face masks was because this is hay fever season.” Instead, there was simply speculation.
Without feet on the ground in Japan, much of the Western press had to rely on wire reports or stringers – who might or might not have been incorrect. The language barrier was also hampering, meaning a delay between the most current info and what was be stated in the West. Then, as the Wall Street Journal points out, Japanese was even mistranslated, leading to incorrect reporting.
The foreign press does bring a cynicism, which I do think is healthy. However, it’s lead to foreigners fleeing Japan out of fear. Some left because they had to, either their companies or schools forced them to exit, while others simply fled because they were scared. There were shades of the build up to 1999 and the whole Y2K fiasco, with the demand for iodine pills in the US spiking.
As of posting, over 20,000 people are either dead or missing because of the earthquake and ensuing tsunami. Yet, the threat of a nuclear meltdown is what caused reporters to hop on planes and head to Japan. Natural disasters are sad, but apparently, rescue workers risking their lives to cool nuclear rods is compelling television. But with the story still not resolved, cooling like the rods while Libya heats up, the foreign press that parachuted in is off to their next big disaster. Here’s hoping they get it right this time.
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