What the media invading the Fukushima evacuation zone says about our media consumption

Source: WSJ

There have been many many reports of what it’s like at the earthquake-affected areas, and now there is a growing number of reports coming from inside the nuclear evacuation zone. According to Google News, the Global Post, the Telegraph, and CNN have reports, and a Japanese team recently posted a video of their trip. Here is what the Wall Street Journal had to offer:

Eerie Hush Descends on Japan’s Nuclear Zone

FUTABA, Japan—In the Coin Laundry, a dryer is still loaded with clothes: an orange hooded sweatshirt, a green worker’s vest and two pairs of jeans, damp and smelling of mildew.

At Joe’s Man restaurant near the train station, a menu lists the lunch specials, starting with bacon-and-eggplant pasta in a tomato-cream sauce. A flyer on the open doors of the Nishio clothes shop promotes a five-day “inventory clearance” sale. Over the road that runs through the town center, a white-and-blue sign proclaims: “Understanding Nuclear Power Correctly Will Lead to an Abundant Life.”

But life, by and large, is what is absent in this town, just a few miles away from the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

A little further down the reporters describe an interesting exchange after explaining that the zone isn’t illegal to enter but strongly discouraged:

“What are you doing here?” a fireman asked a reporter walking in the street. From the passenger seat, another firefighter held up a radiation monitor. “You are not supposed to be here. It’s dangerous,” he said. “Please leave soon.”

To me, if there are enough reporters on the ground that they are running into each other in an evacuation zone, something is very wrong here. Whatever value there is to tell the story of the evacuees has been eclipsed by the reporters’ attraction to a sexy location with post-apocalyptic trappings. These people are not looking to provide useful information for a discerning public. They are just entertainers hoping to sell an interesting story to the folks back home.

Most of the time media as entertainment is fine and more or less harmless. The tradition of Westerners reporting back on exotic travels goes back at least to Marco Polo, and it’s only natural for people to have a voyeuristic interest in world events. I’ll even allow that there may simply be no other good way to get digestible information about other countries. It’s just that from the perspective of someone living in Japan with a stake in the quake’s aftermath, seeing these kinds of reports is frustrating and makes me think they’re exploiting a tragedy.

After the earthquake, a lot of foreign residents of Japan received panicked messages from their relatives and friends back home, myself included. In my case, I had to tell my mom to stop watching CNN and turn to more reliable sources like NHK World. Since she didn’t have that on cable, she ended up turning to CCTV9, the international version of China’s state-run TV, because it had much more straightforward, facts-based reports. Other relatives also contacted me, some telling me to consider leaving. One conspiracy theorist relative told me to check the Drudge Report to get “the real story.”

Normally, average people are served well enough by whatever media they choose to access because it never affects their daily lives. People can read well-written articles in The Economist that might be wildly inaccurate because hey, who’s going to know the difference unless you’re actually from the country they’re writing about? It’s all just entertainment for the commute. Sadly, there’s no separation between the entertainment media and where you should turn when there’s real news.

12 thoughts on “What the media invading the Fukushima evacuation zone says about our media consumption”

  1. Marco Polo? More like going back to Ptolemy, at least.

    I dunno, I think the news stories are fine. Basically, Japan’s inability to explain the situation to both their own people and the world have resulted in this more than anything else.

  2. Apologies in advance for history geekery –

    “Marco Polo? More like going back to Ptolemy, at least.”


    Reasonable arguments have been made that the ancient Egyptians are “Westerners” (as we don’t get “The West” without them) and they have exotic travel literature going back twenty centuries BC.

    Back to the topic at hand – one of the things that has bothered me, especially since the Chernobyl-level buzz started last week is what we can call “fringe science”. People are somewhat justified in looking for opinions that they agree with in some circumstances (like deliberately reading a movie critic that you know likes big stoopid movies to see if “Thor” is going to kick ass but reading a different critic to see if the latest angstful college drama out of Hungary is going to do it) but there is a problem when people go looking for science that they know they will agree with. When Chernobyl death tolls range from 50 to 1,200,000, there is a reason to look for the peer-reviewed scientific consensus rather than whatever number you feel like believing because it dovetails with your politics.

  3. The earthquake was a great lesson in media literacy. With every article you really had to check what was the headline based on, and is the expert really an expert (and if so, was his or her expertise relevant). A personal favourite was one that had the headline “CHERNOBYL IN 48 HOURS”, which if you read the article it was based on a scientist saying he thought we’d know the severity in a day or two. In many articles, you had to do personal research to then see if the “expert” had a pro or anti nuclear bias. It’s sad to realize that their bias affects their response more than the facts at hand. It’s like no one realizes frightened people in Japan are listening to them to try and get a sense of what they should do.

    I think blaming the government’s initial inability to get news to embassies and media outlets is fair, but the correct response by the media wasn’t to go completely mad with speculation. At least the government has gotten better. Even if it’s posting an essay tweet by tweet on twitter, they do communicate.

    The media going into the evacuation zone is media bullshit I can deal with. I put it on the same level as the close ups of blood stained concrete and fragmented glass after a fatal car accident. It’s a lot easier to ignore than that “expert” (the janitor at Chernobyl in ’82) talking about a plume coming for Tokyo, and how he would definitely escape.

  4. “Japan’s inability to explain the situation to both their own people and the world”

    What could the Japanese government have done better? Press conferences every half hour instead of every hour?

  5. One thing I’ve noticed about the “inside the evacuation zone” coverage is the similarity with “haikyo” hunting. There’s a certain appeal of abandoned buildings/cities/civilizations (Angkor Wat comes to mind). Part of this is a normal fascination, but I think another part is people looking to conquer new territory and “discover” something.

    That said, the picture of Futaba above is super creepy, although only partially because the town’s now abandoned. I lived in Aizu during my stay on JET, but I drove back and forth between Aizu and the coast, and that sign was always a creepy reminder that there were reactors nearby.

  6. Ah, I forgot to mention the similarity to storm trackers – both hurricane and tornado. I think there’s a striking comparison.

  7. “Ah, I forgot to mention the similarity”

    Let’s not forget disaster manga.

    I have fond memories of Aizu myself – one of the things that makes me shiver when I see footage like this before I rage at the disaster porn quality of it all.

  8. Yes. It’s a kind of ‘wasteland aesthetic’ that enjoys the uncanny sensation of an urban area without people. The UK Guardian newspaper (admittedly using a film critic) compared Fukushima to Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’, which is hardly helping. Irrespective of where one stands on the nuclear energy debate, it seems to have set off some especially emotive narratives of apocalypse, especially in the western media. Meanwhile, In Tohoku, people still sleep on the floors of gymnasiums while they wait for housing.

  9. There’s definitely something special about ghost towns. Just like there was a something hypnotic about watching the 9/11 planes crashing 50 times a day for a few days.

    It’s hard to deny some disasters produce fascinating imagery. We might as well accept it, the problem is the media trying to pass it off as news in itself and giving in to sensationalism.

  10. Talking of ghost town imagery, some photos of Pyongyang are very impressive in that way. Minus the nuclear radiation worries….

  11. “Basically, Japan’s inability to explain the situation to both their own people and the world have resulted in this more than anything else.”

    I had to disagree about that.Problem here is GoJ gave too much informations(Edano,NISA,NSC and four-times-a-day TEPCO press conference both at the HQ and Fukushma office)And foreign media/free lancers/internet made too much specultions because they neither can’t cover all of the press conf and digest the information that’s been handed out there/

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