Thursday, March 24, 2011

Building the Narrative of Fukushima

JapanMail Over at the BBC, Fiona Fox has a stern talking to with her colleagues in the press – British, primarily - over their handling of events at Fukushima Daiichi:

One tabloid's Japan coverage was typical. Under the title "Japan's Horror: Battle to Stop Nuclear Meltdown", the double-page spread included three articles by different reporters on the nuclear threat: "Now Food's Nuked", "Dangers Might Get a Lot Worse" and "Despair of Victims in Nuke Zone". The only piece about the earthquake itself was the story of a Brit who had a miraculous escape.

But when the first excitement passed and outlets started talking to  scientists and engineers in the nuclear field and academia, a different story began to emerge:

As with all good scientists and academics, there were differences of emphasis and differences of opinion, but I think a fair reading of the consensus would go something like this:

  • This was a very, very serious situation
  • The Japanese operators appeared to have done a tremendous job in controlling it
  • It was not another Chernobyl
  • Almost everything reported to have happened was what experts would have expected to happen in a 40-year-old plant faced with the combined impacts of the earthquake and tsunami - The Japanese authorities did everything right in relation to protecting the local population - setting the exclusion zone, handing out iodine tablets etc.
  • The health risks to anyone in Tokyo from a radiation leak at the plant in Fukushima are really very small indeed.

Which is considerably less dramatic than the media could be expected to cope with.

So why did the best estimates of the best experts give way to another narrative? Why did so many responsible broadcasters and editors not allow the facts to get in the way of a good story? Why did almost every section of our media lead daily reports with 'another Chernobyl' or the coming apocalypse, when none of Britain's leading scientists or the Chief Scientific Adviser were in any way confirming that assessment?

We talked about this a little in the story about Pew below, but Fox’s story goes into much more detail. If you want a good explication of  how media narratives get formed, Fox does a terrific job laying it all out.

Fox makes one excellent point that needs calling out: fastening on Fukushima overwhelmed the actual crisis in Japan - the earthquake and tsunami.

Three meltdowns! When did that hap – oh!

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Wow, that post makes it sound like the Fukushima story is over. That spin seems premature as things continue to spiral downhill at the plant.