Catastrophic Coverage

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Part 1: Some horrific reporting out of Hiroshima

It’s been 20 days since the March 11 earthquake in Japan.

Despite the scale of the disaster – thousands dead, thousands more missing – the focus of the global media shifted quickly to the disaster at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima.

Do you remember how many times the word “catastrophe” was used in headlines, for those first several days? I Googled “nuclear catastrophe in Japan” and came up with more than six million hits.

Then I substituted “apocalypse” for catastrophe and did another search. This time, more than four million hits. However, most of these appeared to be blogs, anti-nuclear sites and even some articles about World War II. Not as many mainstream media were as hyperbolic as that.

Every day, there was another headline – an explosion, a radiation leak, an evacuation, radioactivity found in milk, and so on – which all served to ratchet up the panic. For several days, it truly felt like the entire population of Japan was in severe danger of radiation poisoning.

Did you notice a pattern to this coverage? That is, the crisis kept escalating, but the catastrophe didn’t happen? Did it occur to you that the hysterical tone of coverage was over-blown, and the extent of the disaster was exaggerated?

Yes, it was a serious situation, and still is. But I do think the consumers of news have a case of “catastrophe fatigue”. People have figured out that perhaps things won’t get worse than they are; or, at the very least, Japan is not facing a cataclysm. The country’s populace is not in imminent danger.

Things continue to evolve at Fukushima. On Monday, the headline was “Plutonium found in soil at Japan nuclear plant,” and the first two paragraphs read like this:

The operator of the earthquake- and tsunami-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan says plutonium has been detected in soil at five places at the plant but that the levels are not believed to pose a threat to human health.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TECPO) said the level of plutonium was similar to that detected in Japan after neighboring countries such as North Korea and China conducted nuclear experiments.

If you were just browsing headlines, that story would sound pretty alarming. However, the first paragraph does make clear that the amounts are insignificant. This kind of balance has been lacking in much of the media coverage I heard since March 11, due to a combination of ignorance, anti-nuclear bias and old-fashioned sensationalism. The loudest, most frightening headline will draw the most readers, after all.

I didn’t see, hear or read all the coverage, of course. But the lowest moments, in my view, occurred on Sunday and Monday, March 20 and 21, during The Sunday Edition and The Current, both on CBC Radio. Normally, I have the highest respect for this program, but I quickly became alarmed by the tone of coverage I was hearing from journalist David Gutnick, one of The Sunday Edition’s producers.

Pull up a seat and relax, while I parse his coverage in some detail.

Gutnick arrives in Tokyo, and soon heads south to Hiroshima. Yes, Hiroshima is not just any city – and Gutnick is no accidental tourist. He is there for a reason.

“Everyone in the world knows how symbolic Hiroshima is, and Nagasaki,” Gutnick says. “Hiroshima really is the centre of people’s consciousness when it comes to that image of war; a city that was flattened on that August morning near the end of the Second World War. And the people here have known incredible suffering, and they’ve rebuilt it, brick by brick.”

Before going any further, I need to make this abundantly clear: an atomic bomb cannot be compared to a leaking nuclear reactor. An atomic bomb is designed to cause maximum death and destruction, and its explosive power can spread radiation far and wide. A leaking reactor, even a reactor in meltdown, is nowhere near as catastrophic. It’s like comparing a city engulfed in flames with a single, burning house. Both are bad, but one is nowhere near as severe as the other.

This, however, does not stop Gutnick from exploiting Hiroshima to the max. He describes the city in glowing terms – affluent, clean, modern, busy – but is obsessed with its tragic past.

 “It’s only when you go downtown… and visit the Peace Memorial Museum that the memory of that unleashed radiation and the horrors of what that radiation can do, it strikes you in the face like a fist! (He yelled that last word.) … You’re standing inches from these granite building stones that have a shadow of a person burned into them, from the flash of that atomic bomb… You come face to face with all kinds of objects that were melted.”

Gutnick goes on and on about Hiroshima, constantly drawing parallels between the atomic bomb and the nuclear reactor, as if they were somehow interchangeable. So, before going any further with Gutnick, let’s check a few facts. I gleaned this information in a few moments of web searching, at sites that are normally reputable.

  • Of the 87,000 survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, over 40,000 had died by 1992. However, according to a BBC article, only 690 of those deaths were caused by radiation. That is, just 0.016 percent of the Hiroshima survivors died from radiation poisoning. I’m not minimizing that suffering, but the numbers don’t support Gutnick’s histrionics.
  • We are quite comfortable with radiation, when associated with xrays. According to the same BBC article, a whole-body CT scan delivers a dose of radiation equal to being 1.5 miles from the centre of the Hiroshima explosion. Point is, radiation is a common part of our everyday lives, at levels higher than we might realize.
  • There were alarming headlines in the early days about food contaminated by radiation. However, National Public Radio in the U.S. interviewed Peter Caracappa, a health physicist and radiation safety officer in the U.S., who ran some calculations on the radioactivity levels that had been detected in food in Japan.
  • The highest levels of radioactivity were found in spinach, grown 70 miles south of Fukushima. A person would have to eat 41 pounds of that spinach, to consume the equivalent amount of radiation that a nuclear plant worker is allowed to absorb in a year. That’s a lot of spinach.
  • You may have heard about contaminated milk, as well. Caracappa found that, to reach the yearly radiation limit, you’d have to drink almost 3,000 eight-ounce glasses of milk.
  • “The long and the short of it is that we're not going to be able to detect any statistically significant change in the cancer rate for anyone as a result of the events in Japan,” Caracappa said. It’s funny that media weren’t reporting that tidbit, during the “catastrophe.”

On this one, officials in Japan were damned no matter what they did. If they acknowledged the situation was extremely serious, the media went into panic mode, screaming about catastrophe. If officials said that the situation wasn’t really that bad, they were accused of evasiveness and cover-up.

Back to Gutnick. He was so moved by the museum in Hiroshima that he took to the streets, asking residents how on earth they could reconcile their city’s tragic history with the fact that the city is now fueled by nuclear power. (Gutnick doesn’t explain why he is conflating the two, as, again, one is nothing like – and nowhere near as dangerous – as the other.)

While he doesn’t explain the difference between nuclear power and nuclear bombs, Gutnick does seem to sense, instinctively, that he is screwing up. Here is what he says, at one point, when the Sunday Edition host suggests that maybe young people aren’t linking the prosperity they feel today with what they see on museum walls:

“That’s exactly it, making that link,” Gutnick says. “I was starting to wonder myself, should I have been making that link, between 1945… and what’s happening today. And I started to think that maybe coming down here to examine this story might have been a stretch; maybe I wasn’t being honest with myself and that the real reason I came was just to get away, I was running away from Tokyo to get out of the possibility of being in that cloud. And then, as I was thinking these things, I got a message on my Blackberry… inviting me to go and see a woman who I had been trying to get in touch with…”

That woman, a homeopathic “doctor”, convinced him that he was right in coming to Hiroshima.  However, it’s not entirely clear why. Despite Gutnick’s inflammatory remarks about Hiroshima, and people being “melted” in 1945, the women is apprehensive about nuclear power, but doesn’t condemn it. The interview goes nowhere, really, and fails to justify Gutnick’s decision to come to Hiroshima. 

 The next day, Gutnick pops up on CBC Radio’s The Current. He’s still in Hiroshima, beating that horse, and still not giving any context about the difference between an atom bomb and leaking radiation.

Host Anna Maria Tremonti opened the piece with this factoid: “As you’ve been hearing on the news, crews were confronted with more trouble in their efforts to stabilize Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plat today, and canola and chrysanthemum greens have joined milk, spinach and drinking water on the list of foods testing with higher radioactive levels in the areas near the devastated nuclear plant… Officials insist they do not pose a threat to human health, but anger is rising among many in the affected area, along with accusations that officials have not been forthcoming about the extent of this crisis. This, in a culture where respect for authority is paramount.”

Did you catch that? More foods added to the list of non-dangerous items like the milk and spinach I mentioned earlier. Without balancing information, this ratchets up the sense of panic around the disaster. The insistence from officials that radiation levels are not a threat is countered with the claim that “many” are angry and feel that officials are not telling the truth. I listened carefully for the next 20 minutes to see how well these claims were substantiated. It wasn’t.

You can see how it’s going to go, right from the first question. Tremonti asks Gutnick, “has that anger we’ve heard from people near the nuclear plant spilled over to where you are in Hiroshima?”

“You’d think it might,” Gutnick answers, repeating that 140,000 people were killed by an atomic bomb blast at this very city, in 1945. “I guess the short answer is no, because right now the population of Hiroshima is not up in arms. They’re not really talking about the relationship between what happened in 1945 and what’s happening today…”

Tremonti asks Gutnick why, but he is at a loss to explain. The fairly elementary fact, that there is no credible relationship between the two, doesn’t seem to enter his head. He interviews a lot of people in the street, challenging them about the “scars on their soul” and the “terrible dangers of radiation,” but encounters a “reluctance to show anger.”

“Are these people facing a dilemma,” he says, “(about) the need to conform to society versus the need to warn the society?”

To support this notion, he refers to a group of young, attractive university students who were attending a graduation ball at a hotel – the “grand-kids” of the people who were bombed in 1945. He spoke to them, and, again, did not get the answers he was looking for. The young people were not conforming to his narrative. However, he twists this to mean that the young people are not thinking for themselves.

Here are some of the things the young people said:

“The situation in the earthquake was a natural disaster, as opposed to Hiroshima, which was a battle between two countries.”

“The source of the radiation was completely different. In the case of Hiroshima, it was a bomb that was dropped on our city, whereas in Fukushima, it was an accident… Our parents don’t have any feeling that there is any particular relationship between the two events.”

“We grew up with the danger of nuclear radiation as children, but still the situation at Fukushima, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are completely different.”

Then, Tremonti and Gutnick do a bit of tut-tutting, about how the young people support what the government and nuclear industry are saying.

“They could be on television promoting that industry,” Gutnick says. “They are so trusting… Remember, right now, I am in Hiroshima. (He says this with emphasis, as if frustrated that no one gets his point.) But as you can hear from that conversation, the respect for officials, it’s a deep part of this society. The public display of social solidarity is incredibly deep.”

Gutnick tries to interview the Hiroshima mayor, but is turned down because the mayor wants to coordinate his message with official press releases. This, of course, only confirms that they are being evasive, in Gutnick’s mind. Did he consider that maybe, just maybe, the mayor wanted to make sure he was working with the latest information from Fukushima?

There’s more, much more, but it’s more of the same. Gutnick finds a few people who express misgivings and bad memories about the A-bomb, while trying to connect that attack with Fukushima – with mixed results.

“They are law-abiding, responsible citizens who’ve chosen to somehow move on from that past,” Gutnick says. “They don’t want to forget that past. But they want to conform. They want to belong.”

Have you heard anything so patronizing?  Because the citizens of Japan know better and don’t allow themselves to be used in Gutnick’s sketchy narrative, he dismisses them as “conforming”.

Perhaps the people of Hiroshima, being so familiar with nuclear power and the atomic bomb, were quite aware that you cannot compare the two. Perhaps they knew that radiation levels were minimal; that the situation, while serious, is nowhere near catastrophic, and that even a worst-case scenario is nowhere near as terrible as an atomic bomb. Perhaps they were suspicious of Gutnick’s motives, and his attempts to provoke an anger that didn’t exist.

Perhaps they sensed Gutnick was a disaster tourist, exploiting them for his own sensational story. When they didn’t cooperate and tell him what he wanted to hear, Gutnick patronized and insulted them.

Because of Gutnick’s coverage, The Sunday Edition and The Current have taken a major credibility hit, in my view.

From now on, I will listen to both programs with my bullshit filter on high alert.


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Recent comments

  • Jeff Power
    April 03, 2011 - 09:37

    Good post.

  • Tim
    April 01, 2011 - 11:40

    Sensationalism in the media is nothing new, and is as much a breach of trust as any kind of political spin. It comes down to manipulating the situation to have things seem the way the individual or group wants them to be seen in support of their underlying interests. Journalists should be as accountable to the public as the politicians, police officers, church leaders and other community figures which are commonly thrown under the skeptic's spotlight, often by the media, whether warranted or not. When it comes to the news, my BS filter happens to be on at all time.