Scaremongering in the Western Press
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In an AP story by Eric Talmadge and Mari Yamaguchi, “Japanese choppers dump water on stricken reactor”, the second paragraph starts with

While the choppers flew combat-style missions to dump batch after batch of seawater onto a stricken reactor, ...

This “reporting” by Talmadge and Yamaguchi is a perfect example of the wild sensationalism I've seen in the US media about the situation in Japan. The depth and breadth of the destruction can't possibly be sensationalized because it's already unimaginable, but everything else seems to be looked at in the US press in the most exaggerated, dire way possible.

In what world is dropping water with fire-fighting equipment a “combat-style mission” rather than a “firefighting-style mission”? In a world where you want to twist reality for maximum dramatic effect. In what world is “batch after batch” a reasonable reference to “four loads of water over the course of ten minutes”? The same.

Time and again I see article and photos that try to fan the flames of panic, showing photos of empty store shelves and gas-mask wearing workers as if that's a common sight around Japan. As far as I can tell from the domestic news, the gas-mask wearing workers are only in areas associated with the reactors and gateway areas for evacuees. Empty store shelves are more common in the fringe of the areas of devastation, and likely in areas where a lot of people are traveling (in the same way that the convenience store near my place in Kyoto has its shelves stripped bare numerous times throughout the day on a weekend during cherry-blossom season).

For what it's worth, I've seen no effect of any of this here in Kyoto, and wouldn't even know about the earthquake and tsunami and reactor woes if it weren't for the news.

The article “Japan Earthquake and the Irresponsible Foreign Media” by Richard Graham says it well, after watching the events unfold in a horrific but orderly manner on domestic TV....

then I switched across to the BBC and oh my goodness, what a contrast! Make no wonder everyone overseas was panicking. Forget any pretense of informative news, this was purely emotionally driven exaggeration on the part of the BBC. Whilst Japanese news was giving out information about what areas were affected by what size waves, the BBC was giving voice overs like “death approaches by the sea.” They reshowed the footage of Sendai from when the quake hit but this time with voice overs like “blinded with panic not knowing where to turn”

Another example is a video currently featured on the Y! Front Page about a pair of dogs in the rubble, behind a linkheartbreaking video”. The video shows a mud-caked scruffy dog walking to another dog that lies unmoving, as if dead or asleep. Eventually the unmoving dog moves and nuzzles with its mate; the reporter gushes about how happy he is that they're alive, that life endures even in these trying times. The video starts out sad to grab you, but turns into an uplifting video celebrating life, a bright spot in a vast expanse of blackness that this earthquake has been. With so many truly sad stories, why does the media feel the need to manufacture additional ones?

There's so much real news to be reported... the devastation is unimaginable. Suffering by the victims is ongoing and intense. Concern for the reactor situation is real (and faith in the government to handle it shrinking). There's plenty of real news, so why the sensationalism? I understand the media will always be a strong political agenda (one way or the other) whenever anything nuclear is involved, but again, there's so much real news to report that they don't need to sink to these tricks.

Update March 31: I found this Journalist Wall of Shame highlighting some of the more egregious examples of scaremongering.

All 19 comments so far, oldest first...

The US media is trying to make a story, and probably try to scare Americans away from nuclear power as well. Most of the US is less earthquake-prone than Japan, so this isn’t exactly a disaster that could occur over here. Maybe in coastal areas, but just putting the plant a few hundred miles inland would solve that problem.

And people wonder why I stopped watching the American news…

— comment by 603 on March 17th, 2011 at 9:45pm JST (12 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Having lived in Japan and experiencing the Kobe quake myself I can’t agree more. It’s getting the full on Fox News end of the world type of sensationalism and even BBC World is joining in on the same type of behavior. I’ve stopped looking at the news and am only getting info from my friends who still live there.

— comment by Andrew on March 17th, 2011 at 10:14pm JST (12 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Hopefully you don’t speak French. You would be much more disappointed reading French newspapers / watching French (state) TV news.

It looks like most of the time they copy Reuters messages into Google Translate and keep the news only if there is “blood, death, dead, nuclear” inside.

People here are running to the closest drugstore to buy iodine just because all the TV news just repeat “this is a new Chernobyl”, without explaining (I just doubt they understand themselves) differences.

And the worse: while it seems that a big part of Japan needs help just to get food, water, clothes because of the cold weather, none of the TV news encourages people to donate. It just seems to be “1. it’s their fault if Japanese have nuclear problems ; 2. is it possible in France ?”. Sometimes I’m bit disgusted and shameful :/.

I’ve been happy to hear you and your family are going well and I’m hope everything will goes better soon.

— comment by sysedit on March 17th, 2011 at 10:33pm JST (12 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink


is there a large difference between the reporting on the public channel and the commercial ones in Japan? The video here seems to suggest so. Oftentimes sensationalistic reporting seems to be related to being ad supported. The tactic apparently is scaring people into watching your channel as to make sure they don’t walk away during the commercial break.

— comment by Jao on March 17th, 2011 at 11:54pm JST (12 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

I’ve been avoiding the disaster porn as much as possible. Sadly, it’s likely to cancel my upcoming trip to Kyoto, because my travel partner doesn’t think she can enjoy being in Japan so soon after the disaster in the northeast. The constant hysteria in the news has created the impression that going anywhere in Japan right now is some form of disaster tourism, and only Bad People would do that sort of thing.


— comment by J Greely on March 17th, 2011 at 11:57pm JST (12 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Here in the States the focus has definitely shifted from the quake/tsunami and their direct effects to endless repetition of nuclear disaster, real or imagined. While it’s clear that some radioactive release has happened, it has mostly not affected local populations thanks to emergency planning, timely evacuations, and the efforts of the remaining crews at Fukushima Daiichi.

Many of the pictures I’ve seen reposted around the web are of suited officials scanning various children. These are very effective in drumming up fear (the kids! THE KIDS!) in lieu of actual context (they are scanning for potential contamination, not decontaminating) and it pains me to see just how efficient they’ve been. Rep. Kucinich is now calling on the NRC to shut down plants despite an absence of good supporting science. Here in California we have two coastal nuclear power plants (the ocean being the heat sink) which are both protected from tsunami (Diablo Canyon by virtue of the cliff it sits on, San Onofre by a 30-foot seawall) and the strongest credible earthquake at the time of the plants design thirty-some odd years ago.

— comment by Mike on March 18th, 2011 at 12:19am JST (12 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

The pressure to create more and more ad revenue has forced ‘serious news’ (ha!) outlets to resort to Pro-Wrestling style journalism. In this new American reality documentaries have script writers and experts are people like Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Al Sharpton, Homer Simpson, Charlie Sheen and Yoko Ono… In this type of atmostphere genuine news can’t exist… if it won’t make you angry, aroused or afraid then we don’t care.

In the Japanese media have they shown any footage of actual clean up efforts? -> Here in the U.S. the media makes it seem like the Earthquake happened 7 minutes ago instead of almost 7 days ago. They play the same horrific video clips over and over again and have big headlines at the bottom of the screen that say BREAKING NEWS and its the same mis-information and opinions (little to no facts) from the previous day. From our (US) perspective not one scintilla of effort has been made to start to rebuild lives or the local civilization.

— comment by Ron Evans on March 18th, 2011 at 1:07am JST (12 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

I agree with you, and with Richard Graham’s comments absolutely. It may be the cynicism of old age, I suppose (in my case), but I am no longer so proud of the BBC’s news and current affairs coverage (nor their programming in general) as once I was. I suspect it has quite a lot to do with the advent of digital services and resultant proliferation of TV and to a lesser extent, radio channels – more air-time to fill with the same amount of news, result more padding and more competition for audiences. There seems much less difference now between BBC (public service) and commercial stations in the UK, in terms of quality of output.

Alas, it seems that the approach pays, for it is the sensationalist tabloid papers, and their equivalent in broadcast media, that appear to have the biggest readerships/audiences, and thus to make the most money for their proprietors.

— comment by Peter in Wales on March 18th, 2011 at 1:39am JST (12 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Hi Jeffrey,

I agree with you entirely—sensationalism has become the new journalism. Unfortunately, bad news sells papers and TV commercials. And even the more responsible sectors of the press in the U.S. tend to pander to commercial interests rather than sticking to sound and considered reporting of events.

An added layer of misinformation is provided by rumors spread through the internet. Since I don’t read Chinese, I can only read reports in the English dailies, but it seems there has been a panic here—people buying out all the salt in many stores—in the belief that the iodine in the salt will protect them from the “imminent” arrival of a radioactive cloud from Japan!!!

My husband and I are so saddened by unfolding events there, but maintain our hope that somehow the nuclear crisis will be resolved with the least possible damage to the environment and people, both in Japan and the world.
We know all the involved parties are doing the best they can under the circumstances.

We are confident Japan is more than capable of rescuing those still stranded in isolated places, and relieving the distress of those who are in temporary shelters.

Naturally, we are glad to hear you and your family remain safe. You are raising a wonderful, compassionate child.

Keep the faith,


— comment by Marylis on March 18th, 2011 at 12:11pm JST (12 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

I only wish my relatives and friends in India read this wonderful article a 100 times. I am more disturbed by the endless telephone calls and emails than the disaster.

— comment by britto on March 18th, 2011 at 2:05pm JST (12 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Today’s headlines in Yahoo news is yet again describing Japan’s “Last Ditch Attempt” to deal with the reactors. Funny, since every step along the way so far since the second day has been a “Last Ditch Attempt” Good thing those guys installed so many Last Ditches!

— comment by Marcina on March 18th, 2011 at 9:19pm JST (12 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

How ironic that Rush Limbaugh was mentioned as an “expert.”

Much of Rush’s show yesterday (3/17/11) was devoted to pointing out the sensationalistic nature (disaster porn) of the U.S. news broadcasts. He even made fun of Diane Sawyer’s news report where she pointed out that the people in a shelter she visited were sorting and recycling their trash.

Rush also discussed how the anti-nuclear activists were hijacking this tragedy as evidenced by Germany’s decision to shut down some reactors and Andrew Cuomo’s push to close one in New York.

— comment by James on March 18th, 2011 at 11:12pm JST (12 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Great post, Jeff, followed by equally impressive commentary from your readers. There are some really smart people out there. I even learned a new term: “disaster porn”

— comment by Michael on March 19th, 2011 at 1:13am JST (12 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Calling choppers dropping water “combat-style” is poor use of language, but it’s far from the worst abuses in mainstream journalism that I’ve seen just today. Using a helicopter drop is a rather desperate measure, in my view–you have less control of where the water lands, and it lands with a force greater than you’d want, risking shifting things around that you don’t want moved around.

For worst journalistic abuses, I would nominate a paper I saw today (thankfully not one of the major ones) with front page headline “Radiation cloud reaches west coast”.

On the other end of the spectrum, I read long articles from nuclear power advocates several days ago saying that the situation at the plant was “under control”.

Foreign countries are usually perceived as being small. Far-away states are as well. I have badly-geographically-informed east-coast friends who ask me about events in Los Angeles as if they were in my backyard.

— comment by Andrew Shieh, Sunnyvale on March 19th, 2011 at 7:35am JST (12 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Hey Jeffrey (and others who are interested),

I don’t know if you saw this yet, but I like to get the news about this plant at this address:

The IAEA is the International Atomic Energy Association and they are keeping tabs on the going’s on in Japan, without sensationalizing (they don’t really want to tarnish the nuclear industry, but they have a responsibility to report what they know to the public.)

I truly wish the best for Japan, and I hope they can keep this as well contained as possible.

— comment by Sebastien Benoit on March 19th, 2011 at 11:49am JST (12 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Not new, regrettably.

“Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”, attributed to William Randolf Hearst, 1863-1951, during, or just before, the Spanish-American War.

— comment by Sean on March 20th, 2011 at 2:09am JST (12 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Sigh. So true.

I find myself in search of a worthwhile news source. I’m thoroughly burned out on the political disaster porn that blankets our domestic news coverage (not that there aren’t very real issues here at home; I’m just very tired of hearing about them). The BBC is my refuge on most days from those topics, but I share your frustrations.

-Eric (Seattle-ish area)

— comment by Eric Scouten on March 20th, 2011 at 11:57pm JST (12 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

News story from last week was reporting that Tokyo was running out of food

— comment by Eric Mesa on March 22nd, 2011 at 10:41pm JST (12 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Disaster porn is the right term.

— comment by Anne on September 26th, 2012 at 4:53pm JST (11 years, 2 months ago) comment permalink
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