Japan shows another side of the press

March 14, 2011


By Anya Schiffrin
The opinions expressed are her own.

Sitting in Japan in the days after the Friday earthquake and watching the official broadcaster NHK cover the disaster has been an unusual experience. There has been the typical blanket television coverage of this tragedy but the flavor of the reporting is different than it would be in the U.S. “Restrained” is how one friend described it. Over and over we’ve seen the same awful footage of the enormous dirty wave sweeping up cars and houses as it inches slowly along the land.

There are the inevitable interviews with displaced people and experts in their offices. But there are very few graphics or charts, no catchy logos and certainly no dead or injured on the screen. Just as U.S. presidents take off their ties when they visit the troops, Japanese officials appearing on television wear the blue uniforms of someone doing physical labor but with their logo of their ministry or office sewn on their pocket. “It’s theatre” a Japanese friend said dismissively as we watched television last night. But the purposefulness and determination of the government officials were evident — and even my skeptical friend agreed that this commitment would be well-received by the electorate.

At Columbia University we recently began a study with Professor Jairo Lugo in the UK comparing the New York Times and UK Guardian’s coverage of natural disasters. One thing that was immediately clear is how quickly newspaper coverage of natural disasters becomes coverage of the state. This is so even in the US where there is long standing skepticism about the state, and — these days — a widespread view that the government should play a limited role.

But things change when it comes to natural disasters. In Pakistan when religious groups stepped in to provide emergency care it was taken as a sign of how bad things have gotten there. When China’s premier Wen Jiabao immediately turned up in Sichuan after the earthquake there, he was thought of favorably. These responses inevitably are compared to the failure of the U.S. government after Hurricane Katrina.

A paper written by my students Alexandra Crabtree, Faith Kim and Lina Salazar noted that the New York Times reporting on Hurricane Katrina, the Haitian earthquake and floods in Pakistan critiqued the failures of government to administer aid and guarantee security and praised the role of non- governmental organizations. NGOs know that the media can help their cause and so work closely with reporters to highlight the work they do.

The U.S. and UK press coverage of the Japanese earthquake, however, has lauded the Japanese for their organization, foresightedness and orderly queues. Their frequent earthquake drills and preparedness (imagine trying out the same set of sirens three times a day) helped limit the number of casualties. Compare this to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina where the US government’s failure left a vacuum in which citizens armed themselves and doctors killed their patients. But the coverage after Hurricane Katrina noted that the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) under President Clinton had a reputation for efficiency and effectiveness.

Media expert Susan D. Moeller says disasters are often described as either being “acts of god” over which we have no control or “complex emergencies” that are manmade such as civil war. Sociologists have argued that the press tends to exaggerate the threat of looting and panic likely to occur after a natural disaster. Japan shows us another side: the media praising and not patronizing a staunch U.S. ally.

Photo: Officials in protective gear check for signs of radiation on children who are from the evacuation area near the Fukushima Daini nuclear plant in Koriyama, March 13, 2011. The biggest earthquake to hit Japan on record struck the northeast coast on Friday, triggering a 10-metre tsunami that swept away everything in its path, including houses, ships, cars and farm buildings on fire. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

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