Disasters:Media Meltdown Radiated Fear

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Now that we finally understand the risks of radiation exposure, I would argue that exposure to hyperventilating news coverage is a more serious matter.  I am not alone.  The triple-whammy, as Reuters called it, of  March 11 — monster earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor crisis — precipitated a meltdown the likes of which many of us had never imagined:  A daily barrage of hyperbole from news organizations.  Yes, there were reporters trying to get it right and inform audiences about what was going on.  But there was also a lot of screaming news that fanned fear into a firestorm

As one who sat in Tokyo for more than a week watching TEPCO battle reactors live on TV while checking Twitter, plus several online news feeds, I cannot help but feel that news media let us down — not only in Tokyo, but wherever our families and friends may have been during that time.

It wasn’t until April 1 and this Bloomberg story that I finally felt things were being put into perspective — perspective which most of us in Tokyo during Meltdown Week had had to fight to obtain by going directly to authorities online, such as a physicist at Tokyo University, rather than news sources.  Now we know, and all my friends know, you’ll get more radiation being in Hong Kong than Tokyo, plus the extra you’ll receive from the flight.  Nice to know, but a little late.

A random and incomplete list of complaints:

Click Bait: As a wire news editor back in the dark ages (pre-Internet), I was reminded many times that a reader perusing a newspaper often reads ONLY headlines, and that my job was to get them to stop, read, and, if possible, think.  I avoided misleading headlines that pulled readers into a story but didn’t deliver.  Back then a story’s success wasn’t measured by clicks, with the ultimate goal of  making the “Most Viewed” or “Most Emailed” lists.

Times have changed.  If you read only headlines, then you were in a panic.  Even if you stayed with a story through its entirety it was still difficult not to panic. Here’s CBS, “Food radiation fears move to the forefront”  — terrifying, especially if you miss the subhead: “In the U.S., the fear of radiation from Japan is so great that even figures meant to reassure can instead cause alarm.”  The key quote, however, is:  “We actually see health damage — not from the radiation but from the fear of the radiation,” said Tom McKone of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at UC Berkeley. “And it’s very real.”  Really? Then shouldn’t the headline have been different, such as, “Fear more damaging than actual radiation, says risk expert.”  It won’t get as many clicks, but it is more accurate.

Here’s one from ABC, which like CBS, usually brought balance to the story, but almost always in the lower half, not in the lead: “Fear of spreading radiation in Japan” comes with the subhead, “Potential radioactive steam from Fukushima plant poses hazard.”  When you get to the actual video,  it’s tagged with “Nuclear Emergency: Fuel at Boiling Point.”  Lots of fear and speculation, and yet it finishes with reporter David Wright taking radioactive readings around Tokyo and finding little except good sushi.  Reassuring?  Not quite.  As a viewer you can’t help but ask, “If there’s no problem, why talk as if there is?”

Reporting accurate, but speculative: Whenever a scientist, or an engineer is asked, “Can you rule out the possibility of the reactor core having meltdown?”  The answer will be, “We cannot rule out the possibility, but…” The rest is buried at the bottom of the story that has a  headline, “Crews Race to Fight Meltdown,” or more understated, yet still alarming, “Meltdown Possible, says Scientist.”  In either case you are focusing on a possibility, not a probability.  That makes all the difference – the situation in Fukushima was and is dangerous because of the possibilities.   However,  there was and is greater probability that it is coming under control.

News commentators: These people aren’t really reporters.  At best, they are authorities in a specific area, often unrelated to what they are talking about.  At worst, they may be the source of all known evil (this is speculation and it is only a possibility rather than a probability).  Most notable early on, was professional racist Rush Limbaugh laughing about environmentally-friendly Japan suffering at the hands of nature.  And then there’s, Nancy Grace of CNN, who according to her bio is a former attorney, but  appears to specialize in screeching fear mongering.  Here she is yelling at the weatherman over whether there is any danger in the U.S. of radiation from Japan.  He insists the US is fine, but Japan has very, very serious problems. Thank you, CNN, for aging my mother another year.

Terms vague and unexplained: Meltdown, of course. Containment, a tricky word, because there are “containments” in the reactor and many other containing layers and walls that could be containing something, but god only knows what or how.  Exposure, as in the “fuel rods are exposed” — sounds dreadful, but exposed how? Above the water or to the open air?  The New York Times was on this, citing a frightening what-if study with 138,000 dying.  Then there were sieverts,  micro and mili.  These often appeared in the same story.  For a while, I thought 100 microsieverts equaled 1milisiervert — an easy mistake that will scare the hell out of you because 1,000 microsierverts actually equals 1 milisiervert.   Dosage: Exposure is measured in hourly increments; you must hang out wherever the radiation is for one hour to get the level described.  And lastly, perspective on the numbers: It wasn’t until nearly two weeks into this mess that many organizations began running explanations of the numbers right after quoting them.  The  number I really appreciated knowing early on came from this site.  The Inverse Square Law — double your distance from the radiation and reduce our exposure to 25 percent of the original distance.

In the end, some of the best information was from experts and their blogs. Welcome to the new era of news media, where disasters are great reality show content, providing background for celebrity journalists (see Anderson Cooper “risking his life”)  — news that entertains, but leaves us none wiser about what happened or why.