Sunday, March 13, 2011

News Coverage of the Tohoku Quake & Aftermath

Nana and I don't know Japanese (yet!), so we've been getting most of our news from the same sources you are. That said, it's been interesting hopping from site to site the last couple days--it really gives a vivid picture of the different reporting styles that are driven by different business models.

First, all the major news outlets, when accessed from a Japanese IP, have earthquake news prominently displayed "above the fold." This is no surprise: it's a disaster of incredible magnitude, and we're only just now starting to realize how devastating the quake and tsunami were.

Where the news reports differ is in tone. (I'm going to try to do this off-the-cuff now; I'll attempt to link to cached versions of these pages later.)

The reports from the American outlets are by far the most dire: driven by advertising revenue, they're designed to maximize click-throughs. The MSNBC and Fox News stores are packed with loaded language and imagery: MSNBC, for instance, sports a huge photo of a survivor surrounded by wreckage, while the Fox News story, marked "URGENT," uses the verb "flee" to describe what has elsewhere been depicted as an orderly evacuation of the areas around the Fukushima nuclear plants. Even CNN, who's supposed to be the boring old spinster of American infotainment, is kicking around terms like "meltdown," "nuclear," and "explosion," words apparently calculated to conjure images of a mushroom cloud (which is physically impossible with the materials found in these reactors).

Contrast this with the publicly-funded BBC, which accurately describes the "second reactor blast" as a only a possibility, not a certainty. BBC stories have also been generally good about pointing out that the first explosion, as would also be true of any others to follow, was actually caused by vented hydrogen gas, and didn't damage the containment structure or the reactor itself. Furthermore, other than BoingBoing, the BBC seems to be one of the only major English-language news outlets explicitly admitting that there's almost no chance of a major nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima. Coincidence? Or does the BBC's independence from advertising revenue allow it to forego the hysteria?

(The British ad-supported Daily Mail, on the other hand, is running a ghoulish above-the-fold feature on one of the north-eastern towns that was completely destroyed.)

Finally, the Japanese media outlets--or their English-language branches, at least--seem to be trying their best to keep calm. For example, the teaser for NHK World's top story specifically mentions that there are fears of a hydrogen explosion (not a nuclear explosion) and that the health effects of such an explosion should be negligible.

Anyway--all of this seems kind of insignificant given the scale of the disaster . . . but still an interesting little media study. Could also explain why we barely realized it was necessary to let folks know we were safe here in Fukuoka: sure, it's Old-Testament bad up north, but the American media makes it look like the whole country has been knocked back to the stone age.

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