The Japan tsunami: the second anniversary of a literally earth-shaking event

On March 11, 2011, 3445 days ago, Japan’s northeast coast was struck by a tsunami of unprecedented violence. The tsunami had been triggered by an earthquake so powerful that it shifted the earth’s mass and sped up its rotation about its axis, literally shortening the length of each day. Watch this video, filmed live from an NHK World helicopter; it is just terrifying. And remember, that is water from the north Pacific and it’s March. It can’t be much warmer than about 5 or 10 °C.

Incredibly, this vast destruction, in which tens of thousands of human beings lost their lives and hundreds of thousands their homes, did not get the bulk of the world media’s attention. The world media were fixated on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, a six-unit station at which three units melted down because the tsunami had wrecked their backup cooling power supply. This resulted in radiation levels that were elevated from the normal background, but still so low that they have failed to produce, in the 3445 days since the meltdowns began, a single human casualty—and that includes the on-site workers who brought the situation back under control.

At the time, bewildered by this spectacle and dismayed by the apparent non-interest in real human stories that were playing out by the hundreds of thousands all along Japan’s northeast coast, I called that misplaced fixation Yellow Journalism. That may have been a bit strong: there was of course lots of excellent coverage of the Japan crisis that did not focus on Fukushima. Paul Hunter of CBC did an excellent series. In this segment, his focus is on tsunami preparedness and survival; he does not even mention the nuclear situation until four minutes have elapsed, and even then it seems more obligatory than from-the-gut.

But Paul Hunter’s series was, unfortunately, the exception and not the rule. On balance, I don’t think my initial reaction was too far off. I don’t often quote Wikipedia, but the Wikipedia definition of Yellow Journalism fits most international media coverage of the non-fatal Fukushima nuclear situation almost perfectly:

Yellow journalism, or the yellow press, is a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers.

The international media know that headlines containing the word “nuclear” are sure sellers. So they put “nuclear” into their headlines as often as possible. Fukushima for them was like manna from heaven.

Unfortunately, in fixating on the non-fatal nuclear situation, they neglected the hundreds of thousands of real human beings whose lives were either destroyed or irrevocably altered by the real disaster, the tsunami shown in the video above.

This is not to say the nuclear crisis should not have been covered at all. But the media skipped the opportunity to actually research, for example, why nobody has died from radiation in the 3445 days since the meltdowns.

Maybe if they did, interviews with anti-nuclear “experts” who have been crying wolf since forever about a technology that in OECD countries has in its fifty-plus-year history produced about two casualties—and who have told any reporter who would print or broadcast their words that Fukushima is equivalent to Doomsday—might have been more interesting.

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