Well, that was fun, wasn’t it? There’s nothing like an increasingly, hysterically ramped-up nuclear Thermageddon to get the blood going and cut one’s coat to suit one’s cloth.
That’s until the bubble of hysteria bursts, and the so-called “facts” you have been ramping your story up with all week collapses under the weight of their unbelievability and your own lack of verification in that cold hard world which we call the Planet Earth. Whereof nuclear meltdown? Wherefore art thou The War Game? Thank God – or Allah, or Yahweh, or Squawking Dawkins, or whoever you believe in – that good ole Mad Dog’s arrived to deliver the goods! We meeja types can look the other way and tell everyone else: never mind that – LOOK AT THIS!
The attention of supposedly grown-up, adult media outlets has shifted from something which most desk-jockey journalists know nothing about (nuclear physics) to something which most desk-jockey journalists know less about (war), but which clearly provides more exciting footage they can ooh and aah over. And, in the way desk jockeys who today pass themselves off as journalists (and vice-versa) do, they will deliberate, cogitate and digest. Though there’s likely to be little of the former, less of the middle and even scarce of the latter.
So that’s all right, then. Except it isn’t. Because I suspect what we’ve seen over the last week with coverage in Japan, we’re going to see with Libya – in spades (and more probably in Spads).
There are certain types of people who see opportunity in a fog of uncertainty. But they do not see the chance to enlighten, inform, explain, to shine the cold, hard light on the fog and reveal the truth. Rather, they see the fog as a cover to disseminate rumour, unfounded “facts”, their own beliefs and suppositions and anything else which will grab popular opinion, to expand and confound the miasma and – let’s face it- achieve a hidden motive.
In wartime, we call such people “black propagandists”. Their job is to spread misinformation, purportedly from a reliable source, but which serves another hidden cause. The hidden motive is, of course, to disinform and demoralise the enemy so as to easier victory for the propagandists’ side.
In peacetime, we call such people “24-hour rolling-news journalists”. Their job is to spread anything which on the face of it may count as information, purportedly from reliable sources, but which always has a hidden cause. These causes are increased sales (for newspapers), increased viewers/listeners (for TV and radio) and increased website hits (for web-based newsites, which in most cases include both the former media). Unlike black propagandists, they do not seek to intentionally mislead. But nor do they have anything to do with the truth as an end in itself.
With the Japanese earthquake, the media rubbish started early. That’s OK: it was a massively disruptive natural event, most obviously to those who endured it, but also to those of us who have assumed the task of conveying that event to others. There is chaos, lack of normal communications, trying to co-ordinate pictures, words etc. Plus there’s always the very real possibility that your on-the-spot reporters not where they reckon they are.
So I can – almost – forgive the BBC for captioning this picture – included in an online photo-series called “Japan earthquake: A week in pictures “- as Sendai, the city “that was home to several million people”:
Almost, except it’s not. Sendai was home to about a million people and indeed still is, since apart from its coastal areas, it remained largely unscathed by the quake. Unlike our own dear small coast town of Minami Sanriku, pop. 19,170, 50 miles away, which this picture actually depicts and which, lying just 55 miles west of the quake’s epicentre, received the full force of the ensuing tsunami. The Telegraph got it right:
OK, so far so good. But this is Japan, right? Land of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and , er, things like the Emperor, the tea ceremony and Godzilla. They must know something about everything nuclear. And if they’re panicking, well – what are we waiting for?
Well, either this:
I do not know “British mum” Keeley Fujiyama, but I wonder if she is closely related to my old Sun mate “Del Keyboard”. (A keen mountaineering amateur photographer, he always reckoned there wasn’t a Fuji he couldn’t mount.) She said: “On Tuesday, the radiation levels in Tokyo were ten times above normal and people started to panic.”
Except they weren’t. On Tuesday,the radiation levels in Tokyo were less than were emanating from the bananas in the combined plastic bags on the editorial floor of Wapping Towers. Stay in Tokyo would be my advice, love.
But apparently if our doughty British mum “Keeley Fujiyama” had stayed in Tokyo, she would have been lonely.
The “Tokyo Ghost Town” then became the big story. With this: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1367309/Japan-earthquake-tsunami-Tokyo-ghost-town.html#comments
One doesn’t have to have much beyond third form science to read this stuff and think: “Hang on on, this doesn’t make sense, but I’m not sure why but I want to find out. It’s not like I’m Stephen Fry and have to suck up to that nice chap from D:Ream to get some sort of contract to make people think I know something, do I? Or do I?””
The Independent, meanwhile, leavened its boilerplate “Thousands flee Tokyo” story with an intriguing non-factoid:
Some have heard that the Emperor has abandoned the city for Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, though there is no evidence that it is true.
The Indy’s intrepid David McNeil, reporting from “the spooked metropolis”, endeavours to use all his journalistic wiles to get to the bottom of this:
“That’s not what concerns me,” said Yutaka Aoki, a taxi driver who works the area around Shibuya Station.
Well, maybe he was more worried about the perigee “super” full moon, as reported by the Sun:
Now look: it was possible to find real, grown-up, scientific news about Fukushima, though you had look hard to find it in the mainstream media (such as this article in the Guardian). Even on March 13 – two days after the initial disaster – The Australian Age was reporting this.
But mostly, if you wanted fact-based, non-sensational, balanced news about what was happening at Fukushima, you had to go outside the MSM, and on to websites such as The Register, World Nuclear News and ANS Nuclear Cafe, and bloggers who knew what they were talking about, such as The Captain’s Journal, with its excellent primer.
The point is, these alarmist MSM reports do have an effect, far beyond the temporary lift in sales or viewing figures. While wild talk of “meltdowns” – near or otherwise – and “radioactive plumes” may have little effect on the home populations in the UK and the US (other than scaring the bejaysus out of them), they do have a knock-on effect on those folks who really close to the heart of the action, ie, Japan.
It’s a little-considered consequence that was picked up by Mariko Sanchanta in this excellent article in WSJ:
Many Japanese are going about their daily lives and routines as normal. In sharp contrast, many foreigners have left after being deluged with phone calls from relatives pleading them to leave Japan after watching and reading media reports in their home country.
Sanchanta points out that part of the disparity between what was going on in the Japanese media and the rest of the world’s hyperventilation might be due to subtleties lost in translation:
Contributing to the perception gap is the difficulty translating certain nuclear terms that have different meanings in Japanese and English. Top Japanese government spokesman Yukio Edano kept using the Japanese word “yo-yu,” in reference to the fuel rods in nuclear reactors, which means the rods are melting. However, many journalists translated this term as “meltdown”, which has much different implications and stirs up strong emotions.
Typically, the Pythia of Journalism has cast his gimlet eye over both Japan and Libya and managed to get things completely wrong.
There are several things to say about the momentous coverage of two momentous stories this past week. That while ordinary people have fled Japan’s danger areas and Libya‘s battlezones, journalists – sometimes at real peril to themselves – have tried to go to the heart of the crises.
No, Mr Preston: “ordinary” people did not flee Japan’s “danger areas” unless they had to – in fact it seems most of them stayed put – and journalists transparently were not at the heart of Tokyo, nor in Fukushima, nor in Minami Sanriku, nor, I strongly suspect, will they be so much in Tripoli. I suspect “ordinary” people will be. “Ordinary” people are usually the ones caught up in these sorts of things, aren’t they, and they don’t have the bulwark of tax-evasive media company expenses to soften the blow or get them the hell out of there.
But isn’t that the tea-time bell, Mr Preston? After you’ve had a cup of tea and a nice slice of Battenberg, we’ll have a chat about this marvellous thing called the interwebs and cut’n’paste and quoting anyone no matter who they are, what they know or whom they represent and calling them an “expert” and vomiting them out into 24 hour rolling news reports. That’ll be nice, won’t it, Mr Preston? Best have a lie-down first, though. May I plump up that cushion for you?
But while I’m doing that, maybe you might like to ruminate on these words from Lewis Page at The Register, who strikes a welcome note of Hominem te memento in his reflection on exactly how your battlezone journalists covered the Japanese nuke story:
As one who earns his living in the media these days, I can only apologise on behalf of my profession for the unbelievable levels of fear and misinformation purveyed this week. I have never been so ashamed to call myself a journalist.
After the last week, I know just how he feels. That’s been the real meltdown.
Weirdness and wonders from the web to get you ready for the final countdown:
What would the Daily Mail say? There’s squatting, then there’s SQUATTING; 11 cars that will make you cool; Wait until your kids see these; Half-chicken, half-turkey – meet the “churkey“; 15 incredible historical photos (and 10 more); The secret behind the “singing sand dunes“; The chemistry of beer (and here’s the periodic table of beer); How to drive away from a tsunami (and what you’re trying to get away from); Death scenes from 36 Hitchcock movies – synchronised to climax in unison (extra points if you can name all the movies); The lengths sharks go to in order to eat you; The least known Tube stop in London – on the third floor of an office block; Werewolf alert: get ready for a super full moon tomorrow; Strange agricultural landscapes seen from space; How to make a living earning Actors’ Equity rates for a non-speaking role – the world’s greatest extra? Tubular Bells by the Brooklyn Organ Synth Orchestra; Extreme silliness from Spike.