Twenty-six days after the ferocious Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the Fukushima nuclear emergency has still not produced a single fatality. You would never know that from the headlines. Though the quake/tsunami killed tens of thousands of people and left half a million homeless, by far most of the news from Japan has centred on the Fukushima situation. Casual consumers of the news could be forgiven for thinking Fukushima is a major problem; in fact, it is obviously minor.
Given that most of the west coast of North America sits at the edge of Cascadia, a giant subduction zone which at any time could produce an earthquake just as if not more powerful than the one that devastated northeastern Japan on March 11, you’d think North American media organizations might, in the spirit of learning lessons we might soon apply, show some interest in how the Japanese are dealing with the half-million homeless survivors of the quake. And you’d be wrong. Apparently, most editors have decided that the relatively minor situation at Fukushima, which, to repeat, has not killed a single person so far, is more sexy.
That particular aspect of the situation could change, of course. There might be fatalities among the workers who are striving mightily to get the situation under control. By all accounts, they are facing adversity the rest of us can barely imagine. In the week following the quake, there were literally hundreds of aftershocks, ranging in magnitude from 5 to 7. Ottawa, where I live, was hit by a single Magnitude-5 quake back in the summer. It was scary. I can only imagine what it must be like for the workers who are struggling to get Fukushima under control. And I cannot even imagine what it’s like for the half million survivors of the quake/tsunami.
If—heaven forbid—a fatality does occur because of radiation at Fukushima, it will be instant world headline news. The anti-nuclear lobby will point to it as proof that nuclear technology is dangerous and should be phased out, in favour of natural gas (which kills numerous people every year—google the term “natural gas explosion” and look at the results). The media sensation, by virtue of the sheer volume and breadth of coverage, will confer social proof onto this facile argument, fooling casual readers into thinking that it is valid.
When the prospect of a single nuclear-related fatality is judged more newsworthy than the plight of half a million homeless survivors of an unprecedented natural disaster, then something has gone egregiously wrong in the editorial rooms of mainstream media vehicles. It is time we admit that we do risk wrong in our public conversations.
The media have a role to play in disaster preparedness. The most important aspect of that role is to convey pertinent, timely information to the general public. In the case of Fukushima, many western media vehicles have done a massive disservice to the general public both in the west and in Japan, by sensationalizing and scaremongering about the nuclear emergency while downplaying, if not altogether ignoring, the real emergency—the plight of the half million homeless survivors of the quake and tsunami.
Of all advanced industrial societies, the Japanese are by far the best prepared when it comes to the kind of natural disaster that Cascadia can and will inflict on the west coast of North America. It would be extremely helpful to know how exactly the Japanese are getting relief and supplies to the affected zones, how they are feeding, sheltering, and providing medical services to hundreds of thousands of traumatized people.
Societal preparedness for this kind of massive emergency must begin with awareness. The mainstream media are essential for strengthening this awareness. It is time western media organizations step up and assume their proper role.
The media are filled with intelligent, hardworking, and creative people. Surely they can figure out how to provide useful information while maintaining readers.