On Watching the News in Japan

Watching the Western media explain Japan can feel like watching a caveman explain the future.


Caveman Reporters
I was watching Dr. Sanjay Gupta waving around a pocket dosimeter, explaining that his “radiation levels had quadrupled,” when I realized the problem with the coverage of this disaster: There’s no frame of reference.

The idea of “quadrupling radiation” sounds dangerous. It isn’t. Gupta acknowledged this, but CNN’s banner still rang the “TOKYO RADIATION QUADRUPLES” alarm. Another CNN banner read, “Radiation Could Reach US Friday,” without qualifying how much.

Let’s Frame Some References
Each millirem of radiation we receive increases our risk of cancer by about 1 in 4 million. (source). That matches the chance of getting killed by a car if you crossed the street five times.

But don’t listen to me. Here’s Ryugo Hayano, chair of the Physics Dept. at the University of Tokyo, in a Tweet:

The radioactivity level of 16 spots in a 60 kilometer radius of Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant #1 (March 16, 2011): 6.7 to 8.0 Micro Sievert. The radioactivity level of smoking 1.4 cigarettes: 100 Micro Sievert. LET’S SMOKE AND GET RADIATED!

Right now, the radiation levels in Fukushima City are at 20 microsieverts, or 2 millirems – “One thousand times higher than in Japanese cities far from the plant,” says the Wall Street Journal – which, in radiation terms, is equal to what a single computer monitor puts out over two years.

Radiation levels in Tokyo – after they “quadrupled” – are at .808 millirems per hour. That’s crossing the street 4 times. You need 100,000 millirems to get sick; even 500,000 millirems is only lethal half the time.

Is it abnormal? Yes. But given radiation hysteria in the United States, using factors like “quadrupled” or “1,000 times normal levels” frightens more than it enlightens. Combined with talk of a “mass exodus,” “radiation fears,” “nuclear threats” and little context, it’s no wonder Americans are getting hysterical.

This stuff is hard enough for me to figure out in a comfortable living room with electricity and a laptop. Gupta, Cooper, et al shouldn’t be left alone to do a crash-course in nuclear science while sifting through debris. That’s the work of editors. I don’t know where those editors are. They certainly aren’t in Japan.

The Media in Japan
Compare CNN to The Asahi Shimbun, which ran a front-page graphic with comparisons of average radiation levels across the country. In some places – including the city I live in – radiation levels dropped.

Yesterday’s headline in The Japan Times was a masterpiece in dull rationality:


By comparison, the UK’s Sun newspaper created our leading “GET OUT OF TOKYO NOW!” graphic.

In Japan, calm reporters in front of simple backgrounds and even a hand-crafted diorama are the face of the network during a crisis. It is a calming contrast to torrential news tickers, whooshing noises, flags and industrial music of American media, constantly reminding you that news is urgent.

Here’s my proposal: Western media addresses risks, because it comes from a tradition of informing critical thinking. Japanese media addresses concerns, because it comes from a tradition of maintaining public order.

Samurai Reporters
When the Imperial Diet was formed in 1889, it was a natural home for former Samurai. Samurai were highly educated and after being outlawed in 1873 they gravitated towards the military and politics. A handful formed newspaper companies.

The media, as a product of the respected and feared samurai class, maintained relationships with other aristocrats, and its readership. That continues, with a few notable disruptions.

In arrangements called “Kisha clubs,” entities grant press agencies exclusive access, meaning foreign media and more critical independent reporters are left out. Reporters in those clubs are accused of limiting what they publish at the unspoken (always unspoken) urging of their government or corporate hosts – all in the name of maintaining public order.

News reports are often uniform across networks and agencies, which reinforces a sense of accuracy. When the west arrives in Japan and reports on something differently, people get nervous. I heard defensive complaints that western media aren’t “trusting the experts in Japan.”

Odds are, the foreign media aren’t getting any information from the experts in Japan. So they’re panicking.

Samurai vs Caveman
As a former caveman reporter in samurai territory, I don’t blame Dr. Sanjay Gupta for freaking out. We’re trained to be critical. Reporters are supposed to find the worst-case scenario, then work backward, informing readers of all possible risks so they can make informed decisions. The worst-case scenario is that we won’t warn people of an impending disaster. So we err on the side of hyperbole.

In Japan, the worst-case scenario is error. Overstating a threat makes a disaster worse by amplifying fear and disrupting routines. They seem to see their work as thoroughly explaining the most likely scenarios. And Japanese culture is less forgiving of mistakes than the West.

But lately, the Japanese media is getting annoyed. One reporter at a press meeting with the power company that runs the Fukushima plant, watched as the company discussed, at length, their deep regrets.

The reporter cried out, “We don’t care about emotions, we want information!”

That’s a notable turning point.

Further Reading
Since I am a nuclear idiot, I want to recommend some articles, written by scientists and reporters with real editors, that might illuminate some of the radiation risk in Japan:

Interview with Britain’s Chief Scientific Officer
The Christian Science Monitor
National Public Radio

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21 Responses to On Watching the News in Japan

  1. snailentina says:

    Seriously, this whole time while watching CNN I have been wondering whatever happened to the advice I learned in Communication school from a very cool professor of mine. “Don’t be an alarmist!” I remember he gave us an assignment about a bomb threat, and after we read them out loud he said, “Great now you sent the public into a panic, and are causing chaos, you don’t want that.” But it seems that is all American media wants to do and it pains me. What happens to what we learn in school once we’re faced with being on a corporation that needs ratings? Also there seems to be this particular tone of voice journalists on TV are using, sounding concerned as if the end of the world is indeed upon us.
    I feel really weird about the whole thing because is giving me a love/hate feeling about media as a whole.

    Thanks again for another great post, this is my kind of media :)

  2. Mario says:

    I’m glad you linked to NPR. I’ve been really happy with their coverage of the situation in Fukushima. They’ve had on a lot of scientists who say things like “I don’t want to minimize the risk or the pain suffered by those who may have radiation sickness, but a little perspective …” It’s been pretty even-handed, I think.

  3. Hanta says:

    Excellent post mate and I couldn’t agree more. It was good to see the Japanese journalists have a go at the TEPCO employees a few days ago as well.

  4. Leslie says:

    I think you are far too generous to Western reporters here, and I laughed out loud when you suggested they attempt to address critical thinking.

    What they are doing is shameless and reprehensible. They know they are doing it. You should blame them, because they are causing real harm if for no other reason they’re distracting from the real crisis in the Northeast to get to the sexier nuclear stuff, which also allows them to make it about their own country (via nuked food coming to Germany or mushroom clouds leaping the Pacific).

    • owwls says:

      Obviously shit like The Sun matches your description for sure. They aren’t even trying. But a handful of journalists are well-intentioned, albeit failing miserably. Nonetheless, as a journalist by training, I know what we’re SUPPOSED to be doing, and that’s based in critical reasoning. Even with good intentions, that can go haywire – which is why we have editors.

  5. Dr Strangelove says:

    Ikegami-sensei, you know that former reporter guy who is everywhere now, did a good program the other night carefully explaining the situation and what microseverts were etc. I found it very enlightening.

    Meanwhile, Americans rush to buy iodine pills.

    I think I’ll go eat some ramen now

    Dr Strangelove
    (…or why I learned to love Fukuoka)

  6. Mad* says:

    Very amusing but sad. We also find western TV and news coverage a bit irresponsible!

    People in North America are getting extremely worried by the TV coverage here talking of Fukushima as if it was Chernobyl after the explosion. Serious anchors on big TV networks are talking of “radioactivity alert”, “dangerous level detected in food and water” and worse, asking constantly for the position of the “Cloud”. Weather maps showing arrows going from Japan to West Coast. Surgeon Gal saying that Iodine tablet “could be helpful” then retracting. It is totally irresponsible!

    The poor average viewer without any scientific background is totally lost in the micro nano pico and fento Sievert, Becquerels and other units. As always most talking heads on TV are scientific morons and the few real scientists are either poor communicators or totally ignored if they say that there is little danger.

    Net result: In many places in North America no more iodine tablets even on East coast. UK, the tabloid center of the world, is almost ready to announce Godzilla sightings. Austria is “monitoring” radioactivity. Russian are also extremely nervous and put an online geiger counter on Sakhaline on the Ministry of Security .

    Keep up the good work.
    Mad*
    http://www.appsmini.com/alertnews

  7. Ju says:

    Or maybe you prefer to believe the one who tells you that you are safe. That’s human reaction.

    And in western counties, people know that news journalists are obviously paid to make big stories, people know how to compare different sources of information, they don’t just believe what the autorities says to them.

    And, well, 2 more things : western is not english speaking countries only, and the NHK World used big red banners with “catchy” lines too.

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  13. Skeptic to Everyone says:

    Don’t you feel like an idiot now that it is known Fukushima is worse than Chernobyl? Fukushima is the worst nuclear catastrophe in world history. Japanese news is connected to the government. They have an interest in downplaying disasters. It’s best if you are skeptical of everyone.

    • owwls says:

      Do you feel like an idiot for commenting on shit you clearly don’t read?

      • Skeptic to Everyone says:

        I read your post and I’ve been following the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe since the beginning. Your point is Western media blew the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe out of proportion while Japanese media were sensible. In reality, the nuclear catastrophe was even bigger than what Western media reported. TEPCO, the Japanese government and Japanese media knew the situation was worse than they publicly stated early on. They did that because Western media was in the country and they didn’t want the rap for being the worst nuclear disaster in history and the consequences that would have. Only after Western media outlets left did we start hearing this slow trickle of worse and worse news. By that time the world had turned their attention to other things. Japanese continue to downplay the catastrophe, how big it was and how big it still is. Fukushima is an ongoing crisis, nuclear material is still being released. I doubt you would give Western media and Western nuclear companies the benefit of the doubt if a similar incident occurred in the West. My point is you should be skeptical of everyone, no Japanese exceptions.

      • owwls says:

        No, my point is that the two media philosophies were determined by different cultural standards: The American media overreacts, and the Japanese government is much more cautious. Indeed, most of the information being presented at the outset of the disaster (“quadrupled millirems”) were useless and careless explained by the media. And at the end of the post, I specifically call out a reporter for challenging the official line of the TEPCO officials by demanding more information.

        So, I agree with your point. But there was no need to call me an idiot. I really don’t understand you people with agendas who feel you have to insult the writers you want to comment on – you could have made your point without being a dick, especially since you completely misread my post.

      • Skeptic to Everyone says:

        This article as well as the other Fukushima articles you wrote clearly show that you believed the Japanese account that the catastrophe wasn’t that bad. And I’m telling you that belief is far off. The Japanese had a big interest in downplaying the Fukushima catastrophe. Japanese society doesn’t take well to those that state terrible truths that would make Japan and Japanese look bad. Not reporting on facts or actively downplaying them is not proper reporting it’s propaganda. That Japanese reporter wouldn’t have said that if it wasn’t for Western media already being skeptical of the incredible claims made by Japanese officials. The world saw with it’s own eyes three nuclear facilities blow up. How could you not be skeptical of the very low-ball claims of nuclear radiation released? Using the word idiot might have been too harsh. If you talk to anyone thinking about going to Japan I hope you caution them about the Fukushima area.

      • owwls says:

        Fukushima didn’t “explode” and the low-level radiation estimates were more or less accurate; the disaster was contained and there have been no injuries or deaths related to contamination in the region (yet). There was no floating mushroom cloud over Japan, no need to “GET OUT OF TOKYO NOW!!!”

        I wonder what your agenda is- anti-nuclear fearmongering? Anonymity and hostility, how brave.

      • Skeptic to Everyone says:

        Radiation is invisible. In 20 to 30 years people across a large section of Japan will have cancer from Fukushima radiation. Actually leaving Tokyo was a good idea up to a year after the nuclear catastrophe started because that’s when most of the radiation was released. We’ve seen with Chernobyl that oustside of the nuclear facilities everything can look normal even though radiation levels are very high. That is what it’s like around Fukushima. The radiation estimates Japanese officials released were inaccurate, too low and only covered two nuclear particles, which happened to be the ones with the shortest half-lives, out of the many particles released. My two points are the Japanese purposefully put out wrong information and you are not critical of what Japanese officials and media put out.

      • owwls says:

        Any sources or we just supposed to trust the opinion of an anonymous Internet troll?

        It’s not just Japanese officials, by the way. Have you even read the World Health Organization report? Go Google it so you can pretend you did.

        Everything you are saying is absolute nonsense.

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