I don’t have the media chops that most of my readers do, so I try not to comment on the media too much. That said, I do have eyes, and am a dedicated news consumer. I know my expectations as said news consumer, but also know my needs due to my public information role. And my interpretation of the current state of the media leaves me feeling unsatisfied. (See my post on Al Jazeera English as proof.)
The ongoing tragedy in Japan serves only to reinforce this feeling of dissatisfaction and want for more information. And while I’ll admit that, like most modern operations, the media has been cutting operational staff for some time, the shortcomings exposed are really quite sad. (And I say that as a completely un-fact-checked blogger.)
There were two articles that I recently came across that provided illustration of my frustrations. First, the San Francisco Chronicle opined that the, Japan Disaster Shows U.S. Journalists Unprepared. (Be sure to note that the authors place the blame squarely on cable news, lest they be found hypocritical.) They get right to the point of the matter:
The triple threat in Japan – earthquake, tsunami, nuclear reactors in peril – is clearly demonstrating how reporters and anchors are bungling the basics and how the producers and executives in charge of them have fallen woefully short of leadership. How is it possible that on Monday evening (Tuesday in Japan), with the earthquake, tsunami and worries about radiation poisoning engulfing Japan, a CNN reporter can ask this question: “How scary has this been for you?”
Let’s see, my daughter was ripped from my arms in the tsunami, I almost died, I lost my home, my belongings, family, friends. There are constant aftershocks, new tsunami warnings and apparently we’re about to have a nuclear meltdown. I don’t know, dumbass, how scary does that sound to you?
The authors note three specific failures, lack of planning, lack of context and lack of focus. Planning is tough, I’ll admit. As budgets for deployed journalists get cut, it gets more and more difficult to establish a bulkhead in remote locations. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t plan. AJE seems to be doing just fine (and is specifically mentioned by the authors, along with NHK English and the BBC). Without an effective plan, it becomes very difficult to provide context of the disaster. Before this whole thing started, Anderson Cooper (to pick a name) had no idea how far Sendai is from Tokyo, nor how far either were from Fukushima. Understanding that goes a long way in providing correct, non-inflammatory reporting. And the lack of focus thing is perfectly illustrated here:
In one notable stint, CNN was clearly not listening to Georgia Tech Professor Glen Sjoden, who was essentially telling them early on to calm down, that the threat at that point was being gravely overstated. As soon as he was off, they ramped up the fear again – meltdown possible!
The second article is from Kotaku, which is normally a blog devoted to video games, but because of an amazing lapse in fact-checking by Fox News got to write about the state of the media in an emergency.
Titled, Japan Doesn’t Have an Eggman Nuclear Plant, Brian Ashcraft points out the multiple errors in a image shown by Fox about where Japan’s nuclear power plants are located. First, the Sendai plant is in the wrong part of Japan, and the so-called Shibuya Eggman plant is, well, a dancehall.
Mr. Ashcraft says:
People make mistakes. It happens. Fox News, of course, is aware of the goof, and the network’s Andy Levy conceded as much to Jake Adelstein at Japan Subculture. This mistake, however, is quickly becoming emblematic of just one of many mistakes being made in the recent Japan coverage, coverage that often overlooked and completely ignored the quake and tsunami victims. Japanese television showed young students holding up signs on television, hoping to find classmates that disappeared; an old man on a bicycle with a flashlight searching for his wife; a mother and son embracing in a community center after being reunited. U.S. coverage focused on nuclear reactors.
Without feet on the ground in Japan, much of the Western press had to rely on wire reports or stringers – who might or might not have been incorrect. The language barrier was also hampering, meaning a delay between the most current info and what was be stated in the West. Then, as the Wall Street Journal points out, Japanese was even mistranslated, leading to incorrect reporting.
I bring up this topic not to bash the media—they are, after all, a vital link in all of our communications plans—but instead to make you aware of the state of our media. Because we depend so heavily on the media to get our messages out, we should enter into that relationship with our eyes open, knowing that the message will not get passed on correctly, that misinsterpretations will be spun in an effort to amp the situation up as much as possible and that much of the reporting may be focused not on helping the survivors, but instead asking them non-sensical questions.