The Japan Disaster: Journalists piling on

Japan is a heart-breaking human story, and the images from the disaster zones have been extraordinary. But is this story really better served by having thousands of foreign journalists on the scene, journalists who are themselves at risk of psychological trauma, radiation poisoning or worse? Claude Adams has a first-person perspective on how, and why…

Japan is a heart-breaking human story, and the images from the disaster zones have been extraordinary. But is this story really better served by having thousands of foreign journalists on the scene, journalists who are themselves at risk of psychological trauma, radiation poisoning or worse? Claude Adams has a first-person perspective on how, and why we cover disasters.

By Claude Adams 

Trauma wasn’t a big issue for journalists 32 years ago when
Unit 2 of the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Pennsylvania suffered a
partial core meltdown. As I remember it, we were “spooked” by the fact that
if we were accidentally radiated, we’d never know it until our hair started to
fall out weeks later.

 That produced its share of gallows humor at the time. As did
my anxiety when my flight out of Harrisburg back to Washington took me over a
TMI cooling tower just as it belched a huge cloud of steam. Was it a
radioactive cloud? What was the pilot thinking? Was I doomed?

I remember worrying what effect this flyover might have on
my ability to produce children, but the subsequent arrival of Patrick (1981)
and Ariel (1987) put those fears to rest.

 They were heady, stupid days. Most of the journalists who
converged on Dauphin County to cover that iconic nuclear accident knew almost
nothing about reactors, relief valves, or radiation. We were ignoramuses eager
to produce some disaster porn. Science was not our strong point. The most
common question in the media scrums was “What’s a millirem?”  (Answer: It’s one-hundredth of a
Sievert.) We’d all seen The China Syndrome,
so we were all waiting for the molten uranium to burn its way through the
earth’s crust and initiate the Countdown to Armageddon. Meanwhile, we listened
to the lies and evasions of the plant operators, and wrote the obfuscatory
stories that created more confusion than clarity for our readers.

 I remember one day, desperate for fresh copy, a few us drove
out to farm country to see the cows. We’d been told that cows react to
unnatural events by turning away from the source of trouble. So we found a
farmer’s field where most (but not all) of the cows were facing away from the
TMI cooling towers. That was enough for a provocative photograph and a few
chilling paragraphs with a catchy headline: “What do the cows know that we

Of course none of this is funny today, as we watch the
unfolding of the Japanese triple-threat: quake followed by tsunami followed by
reactor crises. Reporters are better versed today in science and technology, as
well as how to act in dangerous places. But still,  some serious questions remain.

The Pack Moves In

 Like, what are all those journalists doing there in the
first place? Are they really necessary, or do they just get in the way? What
are they telling us that we don’t already know? The stampede of foreign
journalists into Japan in the days after the tsunami baffled some
correspondents already there.

 Dan Chung, a video-journalist for The Guardian, was in
Japan’s disaster zone 36 hours after the 8.9 earthquake struck. He left during
the first radiation scare. “We were the first wave in and we were getting the
hell out of Dodge. And the second wave (of foreign media) were just coming in.
It was strange. I guess they were there to cover the meltdown.” (A podcast of
Chung’s experiences can be found here.)

 Of course, if there were a meltdown, nobody would get within
100 km of the nuclear plant at Fukushima. Even as it was, there was little or
no access to the main disaster area, so most of the second wave of visiting
journos never even left Tokyo, with its 24-hour communication, abundant food
and accommodation, and best of all, no threat of radiation.

 Even for those intrepid one-man crews like Chung who got
into the disaster zones early, news-gathering was nightmarishly difficult and
ultimately without much point. Almost all of Chung’s 20-hour working day was consumed by
logistics—fuel, food, power and finding Internet connections—which left barely
two or three hours for real work.

 And then, most of the still pictures and video he shot were
superfluous. Chung says he “couldn’t compete” with Japanese crews on the ground
and in helicopters, or with the incredible Japanese amateur video that was
already being transmitted around the world.

Finally, there was the simple problem of communication.
Chung couldn’t speak Japanese, and even with a translator, survivors didn’t
want to talk to him.

 “I kept asking myself, what the hell are you doing, and how
do you do it differently?”

Planting the Flag

 Those questions are mostly rhetorical. They answer
themselves. In his heart, Chung knows very well why he was there, spending
thousands of dollars of his boss’ money on a noble but unrewarding exercise. He was
in Japan because The Guardian wanted him to be there so they could say they had
somebody on the ground. (Radio France were notable for their decision to put
safety ahead of ego, and pull most of their journalists out of Japan when the
reactors started leaking.)

 Disaster coverage on this scale is all ego for large news
organizations. It’s ego on steroids. Stories like Japan offer almost no
opportunity for original, enterprise reporting. They’re a showcase for your
marquee correspondents, who are parachuted in and whose job it is to put a face
(or a byline) on an already-familiar story. It’s a practice called
“establishing presence”–like planting one’s flag at the North Pole: Today we are
here (and tomorrow we’ll be gone.) The pictures these correspondents are
fronting from Tokyo are the same pictures, and the same information, that have
been spinning through the CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera news cycle for hours.

 Just as Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait, 1990, was covered
out of Washington, so too Japan, 2011, could have been covered perfectly well
out of Vancouver or Toronto. All the images and human drama and analysis and graphics and
voice clips are flowing down the pipeline, 24 hours a day, and all of them can
be perfectly packaged at home. (Disclosure: I tried to cover Desert Storm for
the CBC from a hotel in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, but ended up spending much of my
time in a bomb shelter with a gas mask on.)

 “We owned the story yesterday,” was how the senior executive
of one Canadian network greeted the first-day coverage of the disaster. In
fact, nobody on this side of the Pacific “owned” it. It wasn’t owned. At best,
it was creatively appropriated, re-packaged and disseminated. The real owners
of the story are the people who lived and died through the disaster, who used
the social media to deliver the images, and who continue to risk their lives in
the rubble and the reactors to mitigate its effects. Plus those brave Japanese
journalists who got the first pictures out on March 12.

Who Owns What?

Maybe the time has come for new, lean, fast-reaction kind of
disaster journalism. Small, highly-mobile, self-contained units of intrepid
people like Dan Chung who are able to access a disaster area within hours, and
send back information, pictures and audio to a data pool that everyone can
access. We have to accept the ego-deflating fact that there are few scoops in
catastrophes. We have to give up the idea that we can “own” stories of chaos.

 This kind of mindset is not likely to be embraced soon by
our corporatised, celebretised media, so I guess we will continue sending
journalists into trouble areas, and hope they muddle their way through with the
minimum of risk and trauma.

 If so, they should all read a guide prepared by Yoichi
Shimatsu, a former editor with the Japan Times Weekly. His guide was
commissioned by the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, and it has some good
crisp ideas on how to gird yourself for life in a nuclear disaster zone. He
also tells you what to pack: Things like small units of currency, the right
camera phone, travel insurance (for that emergency helicopter ride to the
hospital) and plenty of throwaway raincoats and face masks.

 My favorite piece of advice is: Don’t be afraid to act like
a “horse’s arse” at official press conferences. “The press handlers play dirty,
and never forget it,” Shimatsu advises. So ask the tough questions and expose
the denials and excuses.

 In other words, if you absolutely have to be there, then at least find a way to
make a difference.

Caveat: By the way, I’m not suggesting that there should be less coverage of foreign news by media organizations. On the contrary, there should be more, but I’d rather see the dollars spent strategically. On, for example, a better understanding of the Arab world, than on the redundant coverage of a tsunami in Japan. It’s my guess that the money being spent by the big networks on 24/7 coverage of Japan’s disaster would probably go a long way to maintaining a bureau in Cairo or Amman (or even Tehran.)