Beyond earthquakes, radiation, economic woes, or anything, it’s the media that is going to drive us insane first. Having been in the U.S. for about a month now, I can see why everyone here has gone so crazy about the situation in Japan. Please know that I do not at all mean to downplay the seriousness of the circumstances, but given what I know, the media is not doing such a great job in general of accurate portrayals.
One of my most serious war-cries in recent years has been that not only don’t people read, they don’t read critically. With all of the information available right now, most people choose one news outlet and follow it. I say that optimistically. Some people ignore the news, which is another problem entirely. News has bias – most journalists, even the best ones, have a point of view from which they write/report. A guy writing for the New York Times, for example, is not going to slam President Obama because the newspaper for which he works is a supporter of the liberal viewpoint. This extends to advertisers. Companies hawk their wares in the New York Times because they know what news stories will appear there. Okay, Tiffany’s has had a standing ad on the top right corner of page 3 for a hundred years, but other companies decide very carefully in which papers or on which websites, their ads will appear. News from any outlet must be read, understood, and considered. People have a duty to not just believe what they’ve read, but to think through it, including the potential bias contained therein. It’s a bit of a viscous cycle because the writers and editorial board might pander to the advertisers, while the advertisers, in turn, look at the newspaper and what they publish. I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t read a newspaper – please support the newspaper industry! But just be a thoughtful reader.
All of this is important because yesterday I had a conversation with someone who is concerned about whether or not I should return to Tokyo. She called because the Japanese government had upgraded the “accident” in Fukushima to a level 7 from a level 5, where it had stood for weeks already. I explained to this person that the level change was indicative of the original disaster and nothing beyond the number had changed between Monday and Wednesday. She argued with me. She had read a headline that the situation had worsened. I tried to be patient. No, I said, if you read further, you’ll see that they’re still working to get things under control there. It’s not great – things are not nearly as far along as I would have hoped a month after the quake – but certainly nothing serious has “happened” in the past day or so.
The Associated Press headline on Yahoo at 5:30am Eastern Time today was that there are “fresh woes” at the plant. Well, that’s not really what they meant. In fact, the story is about how the radiation levels spiked, but are now down and people are able to don suits to look for bodies in the area. Now, an hour later, the headline is changed to say that the Emperor and Empress visited the coastal towns where the tsunami hit. It’s just so confusing and hard to follow.
In Japan, perhaps there’s a different problem – the media and the government are downplaying the extent of damage and disaster. The Japanese people have to live there, though. They don’t want to see or hear so much negativity. They want to be calm – the government wants them to be calm.
What do we take away from all of this? Well, the media in the U.S. is sensationalizing the story pretty well, which is a problem. Disaster not only sells papers, it attracts advertisers. Just be careful what you read.
More on this to come. I’m not nearly done with this topic.