Japan, the earthquake and the media

The worst disaster in Japan since the second world war hit the country's north-east coastal region on 11 March 2011. The combination of tsunami and nuclear crisis presented the media with great practical problems and ethical concerns. Wataru Sawamura, an experienced journalist with the leading newspaper the Asahi Shimbun, reflects on how he and his colleagues sought to fulfil their professional responsibilities as the tragedy unfolded.
Wataru Sawamura
11 February 2012

It is almost a year since the dreadful earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in Japan on 11 March 2011. As the anniversary approaches, it is natural that thoughts turn to reflecting on these events and learning lessons from them. This is a brief attempt to outline the professional challenges faced by the Japanese media, and especially my newspaper the Asahi Shimbun, as a result of this day of disaster. 

Asahi Shimbum

Inside Kyoto/Chris Rowthorn. Headline of Asahi Shimbun newspaper March 11, 2011. All rights reserved.

I was in the Tokyo offices of the Asahi on that day, though my perspective on the tragedy is also influenced by my professional experience as a journalist who has spent long periods reporting from around the world to my fellow-citizens in Japan.

I would like to begin with three simple points. The first is the unimaginable scale of it all. This was without a doubt the worst disaster in Japan since the second world war. Indeed, when we take into acount the number of lives lost in an instant, the nuclear threat and the subsequent unprecedented mass evacuation, then it is perhaps correct to say that this was one of the biggest peacetime challenges faced by any developed nation.

The second point is that I believe very strongly that the Japanese media did their very best in the midst of these difficult circumstances. True, some western observers suggested that the Japanese media was nothing but a government mouthpiece. I totally reject this argument as a crude stereotype. On the contrary, I believe that I and my colleagues never lost sight of the need for journalistic independence and integrity.

The third point, however, is to acknowledge that there is no justification for being complacent. There are many lessons we have learned and continue to learn. In such a fast-moving and huge-scale situation, there were inevitably missed opportunities and neglected stories. And even now we are still discovering new facts, in particular concerning the nuclear leaks.

The moment

Let me return to that moment on the day of 3/11 - to be exact, it was 2:46:18 in the afternoon when the first tremors began.

When an earthquake is about to strike in Japan (and they are quite frequent), an alarm will be sounded on television and radio and from phones. So it quite routine when at the Asahi headquarters in Tokyo we heard the loud klaxon sounding on the editorial floor and prepared for the usual tremors.

Sure enough, they soon came. "OK, that’ll be it now", we thought. But it wasn’t. Instead the tremors continued. And rather than getting softer, they got worse and worse. Everything started to come crashing down from the shelves around us. We all desperately tried to keep the objects in place. It was impossible. Ceiling panels started to fall down on top of us. It was then that we realised that this was no normal earthquake.

This situation lasted for a very long six minutes. And then, twenty minutes later, we watched with horror that terrifying NHK footage of the tsunami destroying everything in its path. We realised at that moment that nothing was ever going to be the same again.

That was true also in relation to what could be called another kind of earthquake. Three months before, the Asahi was the first media organisation in Japan to get hold of the entire collection of Wikileaks cables. We had spent those months carefully and laboriously going through each cable.

We were just preparing to release our exclusive scoop to the nation when the earthquake struck. It would take another two months before at last we could return to the Wikileaks story.

The response

We as journalists, like many other agencies and citizens in Tokyo, had long considered the possibility of an earthquake striking the city and prepared various contingency plans, including the emergency transfer of our HQ to Japan's second city, Osaka. We had stocks of food, water and clothing always ready. But when it actually happened - even when the epicentre of the earthquake was far to the northeast - we found that there was so much that we were unprepared for as we sought to do our jobs.

First, we realised that even if we had the necessary supplies, it was useless if the supply-lines were blocked. The cars transporting reporters and trucks delivering newspapers all ran out of fuel. The factories producing the paper and ink were either destroyed or were themselves unable to produce and/or deliver due to lack of fuel. We were told that there was only two weeks' supplies of ink left - but that the paper would run out in three days' time.

In the parts of the Tohoku region most affected, our supply centres and factories had been devastated - fortunately without loss of life. But it was impossible for any newspapers to be produced locally. And of course a huge proportion of our readers in Tohoku were now homeless and certainly not in a position to pick up their daily home delivery.

In spite of all these challenges, over the coming weeks we managed to transport back and forth from the region around 500 of our reporters and photographers, mostly in cars but also by helicopter.

The ethical questions

With the arrival of such a large number of staff, we were faced with a classic dilemma of media ethics. We knew that in the region, there were extreme shortages of food and other essentials. We had the buying power of a massive organisation - but if we had used that power unwisely, then nothing would be left for the local people. For this reason we had to make sure that all our staff took the necessary supplies with them.

Yet for many reporters, the age-old question of how the media should behave in such circumstances became ever more relevant. Where do you draw the line between reporting and helping? Do you give food and drink? Do you provide shelter to the homeless?

When do you put down the camera or notebook and stop intruding on private grief? Is it appropriate to question a child who has lost their home and family? As I say, these are questions that have occurred to all reporters who have been in similar situations, but for many of us they had a particular strength in this familiar context.

There was an additional challenge for our reporters, especially the younger ones: that of emotional stress. Dealing with the sight of so many dead bodies, with the grieving families, the homes destroyed - so much psychological trauma to handle.

There is an obvious retort: surely you were hardened reporters, accustomed to such things? It’s true that many of us, myself included, had had experience of war and disaster zones. I had personally seen the horrors of conflict in Kosovo and the tsunami in Sri Lanka. And yes, they were shocking sights - sights that we reported with all the diligence and care that our profession requires.

But I must be honest here and confess a deep truth that became apparent to all of us who went to the disaster area: this was different because it was literally close to home. More to the point, it was home!

That is, it was not a faraway region which we visited briefly and then returned to the safety of our homes. This was very much our nation, our land, our people. And however much we share a humanity with others in the world, I don’t think anything can touch you as strongly as the sight of your own community suffering.

The nuclear issue

If all that wasn’t enough, there was the added problem of the nuclear issue. It is often said that we were not given any information about what was happening. This is not strictly true. We were in fact given huge amounts of data. The problem was knowing how to make sense of what was at times a flood of extremely complicated and technical information. It took a lot of time and energy just trying to analyse and understand it all, and then to put it into a form that our readers could access easily.

Moreover, the public briefings were only a small part of it. 90% of what we were learning was coming from our off-the-record sources. For example, it was through such sources that we reported two days after the quake, on 13 March, that the Fukushima reactor had gone into meltdown - a meltdown which was only officially confirmed by Tokyo Electric two months later.

Yet it was during this time that we realised more than ever the importance of fact-checking and careful scrutiny of the information that we were publishing. There are some who argued that we had a duty to release everything even if it could not be absolutely confirmed. But as a newspaper, it is clear we have a responsibility to our readers to maintain the integrity in our reporting that they expect of us.

What is very clear now with the benefit of time and hindsight, is that the various authorities from the prime minister’s office through to Tokyo Electric – often simply due to that most human of reasons, panic - did not release all the relevant information.

Again, I would reject the accusation that the Japanese media is nothing more than a government mouthpiece. But it does raise an interesting question about the role of media, and not only in Japan. For as in Europe and elsewhere, we pride ourselves on our investigative function. The role we play within society, exposing wrongdoing and scandal in the worlds of politics, business and culture, is vital. The Asahi Shimbun has brought down governments in the past and I guess - seeing what Japanese politicians are like - it probably will do so again.

But there is another role the media plays in Japan which is perhaps not talked about so much and which may seem strange to (for example) a British audience, especially in the context of recent events and scandals within the UK media. That is, a supportive role: as a sort of trustworthy friend providing helpful information and guidance.

In this world of countless online sources of conflicting advice and information, a newspaper can still stand above all of that as something to be trusted. The Asahi Shimbun sells over 8 million copies daily, and has many millions more readers. To them, we have a responsibility to warn and alert, but also when appropriate to reassure and allay fears.

So in the case of 3/11 and the subsequent radiation alarm, we knew more than ever that we had a duty both to provide balanced and non-sensational reporting and to be ready to help in whatever way we could with essential information on such matters as the location of evacuation centres, food supplies, showers; practical advice on building shelters and makeshift toilets; coordinating volunteers; releasing iguidance for non-Japanese speakers, in Chinese, Korean, and English; and publishing photos of survivors both in print and online to help them reunite. This public-education role was very important to us.

The public-safety issue

Yet it is a difficult balance for us to strike at any time - between providing reassurance but also warning when necessary.

Nowadays if you’re feeling unwell, before you even go to the doctor, perhaps you look online and check out your symptoms. So when you go to see your GP and he says, "don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with you" you start to think about what you read and wonder whether he knows what he’s talking about. Or maybe, even worse, he’s lying to you and it’s more serious than he wants to admit. And so your worries get worse...

This was the sort of challenge that we faced after 3/11. When a government spokesman said, "there is no risk at this moment to the public" - did that mean there was going to be a risk?

It is important to raise concerns when they are valid. But not mistaken concerns - and not in a scare-mongering way. It was always with that in mind that we released information and data. And only after we consulted with as much expert opinion as possible, while considering what the effect of that might be.

Here is an example of the sort of dilemma we faced. When traces of radioactive caesium were detected at Tokyo’s water-treatment plants, all the expert opinion told us that it was still at levels that would not pose any danger to the public.

Now, if we had wanted to sell as many copies of our newspaper as possible, all we needed to do was publish a headline: "Tokyo’s water found to be radioactive!" You can guess what would happen if we did that - total panic. Instead, we chose to report the story, but with a less sensational headline.

Were we right to do so? There are arguments on both sides and I am sure all readers have their own thoughts on the matter. It is certainly something that we at the Asahi Shimbun continue to consider.

The media, old and new

These are of course questions that have faced the media ever since the first newspapers started reporting. But there are also new challenges that are very much of the 21st century, involving the relationship between old and new media.

One of the difficulties we faced as a newspaper was answering the accusation that we were hiding vital information. The internet was filled with rumours, gossip, misinformation and unfortunately at times downright lies. People would read this and then ask why we, Asahi Shimbun, were not publishing it. That easily translated into the charge that we were working on behalf of the authorities and holding back the truth.

I suppose this demonstrates how important it is to encourage all consumers of news to discern carefully their information sources. Though this is not simply a case of old vs new as if they are adversaries; each of course has its merits.

A newspaper like the Asahi has a huge reach and can bring first-hand trustworthy accounts to the readers as if the latter were there themselves. As well as that role as a reliable information source, there is a practical point. A newspaper is wonderful offline!

Something our readers discovered in Tohoku was that without electricity, all their laptops and phones soon became useless. But a newspaper, as long as it can be delivered, is "always on" as it were. It can be shared around and indeed can even be split up between a group of people.

On the other hand, new media also has its merits. Through online social networks, experts can instantly exchange information and analysis of the situation. Whole academic communities can discuss and sift through the mountains of data. And mistakes and cover-ups can be exposed.

It was through the various social media that lists of the missing and survivors were compiled and placed online. Volunteers with phone-cameras went around taking photos of those separated from loved ones and put them on websites.

So each form of media had and has its role to play. And although there are errors and failings on both sides, it is vital that we understand each other and the ways in which we can work together.

There are indeed many lessons to be learned from the events of this year. And I recognise that we have not always got the balance right.

Three weeks before Tohoku, there was an earthquake in New Zealand. Among the fatalities were twenty-eight Japanese youngsters studying at a language school in Christchurch.

The Japanese journalists who went there were relentless in their questioning of the authorities. Was there shoddy workmanship? Was the building properly quake-resistant? Who was to blame?

The reporters were criticised by local people for asking these questions. "When we need to be focusing on getting back on our feet", they demanded, "why are you coming here with nothing but anger and negative criticism?"

It’s a good question and perhaps one that goes to the heart of what the media is for, especially in these most difficult of times. How we balance the various roles of the media that I have discussed, is something for all of us to consider - not just in Japan, nor just within a disaster-zone.  

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