Above all else, there are a huge number of people in Northern Japan who are going to need our help in the coming days, weeks, months, and (dare I say it) years. If you would like to help, from in or outside Japan, there are a number of ways you can do so.

The situation in Japan since March 11th when a massive earthquake struck, followed by a devastating tsunami, which knocked out the systems at a nuclear power plant, has emphasised how important it is to be able to access, filter and decipher media. Events at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, in particular, have been difficult to clearly interpret.

How media has changed
You may remember that, even in the pre-internet age, it was possible to read British journalism abroad. It’s not hard to find ‘The Sun’ or ‘The Mirror’ on the Costa Del Sol, and amongst others ‘The Guardian’ and ‘The Telegraph’ produce weekly digest editions for expat audiences. In the last twenty years, however, the number of channels available for the dissemination of ‘news’ stories has exploded. This has had a three-fold effect.
1. The authority of the previously unquestioned ‘establishment’ information sources has been undermined. This is positive, in that it allows the media-literate to gather a broader range of information and assess that information for themselves. It also allows alternative points of view a greater audience, and should (in theory) make it harder for those in power to abuse that power. On the other hand, it enables those with erroneous or misguided views the same platform. Unfortunately, many people are not media literate enough to distinguish between, for example, an English conversation school teacher and the head of the International Atomic Energy Association. Especially when such sources have their words remixed, recast, organised and obfuscated by journalists.
2. With a 24 hour news cycle, the news business needs to find new angles, connect stories to meaningful reference points and generate emotions which will keep consumers watching. Unfortunately, most news organisations will be working from pretty much the same source material, and have to ramp up excitement or fear accordingly.
3. Local and national media spread beyond their appropriate audiences. British newspapers, written for and by the British in Britain, are not necessarily intended to convey accurate and timely information to people living in Japan. One might argue that journalists should recognise that their work has a wider impact, and should act more responsibly accordingly. One might also argue that media consumers should become more media literate, learn how to interpret local media more effectively, and rely less on media from their homelands.

Why are they telling us what they are telling us?
Organisations and individuals who are in a position to disseminate commentary may overstate or understate the seriousness of any given situation. They may do this for benign purposes, or with more sinister intent. Let’s say, for example, that the Tokyo Electric Company and the Japanese government have been understating the level of radiation released from the Fukushima power plant (although I haven’t yet seen evidence which suggests that they are). This could be done to prevent widespread panic, or cover up for corporate irresponsibility – one of which we might accept, the other we should not.

However, we are finding an enormous amount of commentary on this topic by people who should be disinterested, people who have no direct link to Japan, let alone the plant, and people who have previously had little knowledge of the local contexts. So why are they chipping in? Well, some have an agenda to push. I was quite surprised to read what Rush Limbaugh had to say about the story …. until I got halfway down the page and realised that he was using this case to back up his previous comments on the BP oil spill. So not only is this nothing to do with Japan, it is actually nothing to do with nuclear power. At least Representative Ed Markey (D. Mass), of the House Natural Resources Committee, isn’t using a nuclear power plant to talk about oil, although his warnings about ‘a new Chernobyl’ may be influenced by his long-standing opposition to nuclear power. Of course, just because he is against nuclear power, it doesn’t mean we should disregard his words out of hand. Indeed, it is difficult to do so because without extensive research it may be hard to find exactly what he said and in what context. Contrast these two references to his comments – one in The San Francisco Chronicle, and one from The Wall Street Journal. Both are well respected media outlets, but the articles take very different approaches to the same source material.

Now, the president’s call for the government to back a new generation of nuclear power plants as part of his “clean- energy” agenda may be challenged as Japan struggles to control damaged reactors….Workers battled to prevent a nuclear meltdown after a second blast rocked a plant north of Tokyo following an 8.9- magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11. The cooling system failed at Fukushima Dai-Ichi station’s No. 1 and No. 3 reactors after the temblor, and it stopped working today at the No. 2 reactor. Fuel rods in the reactors may have melted when water levels fell, according to Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.
SF Chronicle

Early speculation was that in a case like this the fuel might continue melting right through the steel and perhaps even through the concrete containment structure… But Three Mile Island proved this doesn’t happen. The melted fuel rods simply aren’t hot enough to melt steel or concrete. The decay heat must still be absorbed, however, and as a last-ditch effort the emergency core cooling system can be activated to flood the entire containment structure with water. This will do considerable damage to the reactor but will prevent any further steam releases. The Japanese have now reportedly done this using seawater in at least two of the troubled reactors. These reactors will never be restarted.
WS Journal

Choice of vocabulary (‘struggled’, ‘rocked’, ‘battled’), grammatical structures (the passive forms in the second article are far cooler than the active forms in the former) and even punctuation (note the way that the Chronicle places “clean-energy” in quotation marks) influence our reading of the material. It’s not hard to understand what each writer aims to achieve, and not a great stretch to pick out how they do it. But why? One might speculate that a San Francisco based paper would be particularly nervous about earthquakes, and also about possible contamination drifting across the Pacific, whereas the Wall Street Journal would be more concerned about market than geological stability. That would be speculation, so we can’t be sure. We do know, however, that neither paper is targeting its reports primarily to expats living in Japan.

From the UK, The Daily Mail provides us with a number of interesting examples. If you don’t know, The Daily Mail is fairly ripe for parody – you can generate headlines here, and check the Mail’s ongoing attempts to classify everything as either cancer-causing or cancer-curing here – but nonetheless, I think it is important to look at exactly what they do, how they do it and why they do it.
Consider their readership. The average Mail reader is white, middle-class, middle-aged and conservative. They don’t know any Japanese people, and have never been to Japan – what’s more, they don’t understand it. They have a similar attitude towards nuclear power. Thus the paper is charged with the task of locating this story in a referential landscape which the average reader will be able to grasp. The human face of this tragedy, then, has to be one which the reader can recognise. The Mail achieves this through celebrity, in this story about British Formula One driver Jenson Button’s girlfriend Jessica Michibata, or by finding another middle-Englander, like this young teacher from Wolverhampton.

Likewise, the disaster itself needs to be referenced, hence the frequent references to Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island. This article refers to both in the helpful bullet points laid out below the headline, if the reader is too busy to go any further he or she will not get to the rather underwhelming reality described in the expert quotes. It is not surprising that these two events have been frequently referenced, although a little research shows that neither was especially deadly, nor especially similar to the current situation. But in using each as shorthand, journalists need to be aware of what they are shorthand FOR. Likewise, technical jargon needs to be explained fully rather than tossed away. I wouldn’t condemn anyone for leaving Tokyo at the moment – the aftershocks, especially in conjunction with rolling blackouts, would have anyone’s nerves jangling. But to leave after reading about the increase in microsieverts? Who honestly knew what a microsieveret was last month? I certainly didn’t. And reading this from a blog on the website of Ireland’s national broadcaster I am not sure if this journalist does now – and this perfunctory explanation was not unusual in the early days of the situation. Take another word like ‘meltdown’. What it actually means and what it means to most of us is reflected in the fact that ‘Charlie Sheen meltdown‘ will get you more than three million hits on Google.

If you are living in Japan, but basing your understanding of Japanese issues solely on overseas media, you need to be fully aware of how and why it is being filtered. This is not to say that all foreign media is bad, although there is enough on this wall of shame to suggest so. Neither would I say that the Japanese media was purer than pure, although NHK in particular has been very level-headed – they clearly recognise their responsibility as information providers in a life or death situation (if you have an iPhone, the free English language NHK world app allows you to watch anywhere. If not, you can stream on your desktop pretty easily). Usually, I find The Japan Times painfully dry, but in times like these its rather reassuring.

Realise that it is your responsibility to understand what you are being fed. That everyone who chips in is pushing an agenda, selling advertising space, covering something up or just plain stupid. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people at the moment who aren’t able to take their time, choose their sources and find the ‘truth’…. if you can, don’t waste the luxury.

How to be media-literate

1. Evaluate the author of the text and the editorial policies of the publication in which it appears. This article, for example, is very reassuring. But from the pen of the man who also wrote “Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey” what do you expect? At least his affiliations are clear, though. Most of The Daily Mail articles cited above are attributed to ‘Daily Mail Reporter’.
2. Evaluate the source quotes. Are quotes attributed clearly to real people with authority and credibility? Anything coming from ‘sources’, ‘experts’ or ‘a spokesperson’ is pretty weak.
3. Evaluate the facts. Are there any? Are they checkable? Pay particular attention to explanations of technical aspects of the story which are beyond the knowledge of the average person in the street. If a reporter uses statistics, numbers or measurements in explaining a situation, are these clearly defined? Are they used to speculate possible outcomes? Are these outcomes plausible based on the evidence?
3. Evaluate the language. Given the same source material, could you write the same story with a completely different tone. Go through and play with verbs, nouns and adjectives. You might notice that throughout this piece I have used the word ‘situation’ rather than ‘catastrophe’, ‘crisis’ or any of the other more dramatic terms which have been bandied about in the last week.
4. Evaluate the organisation. Newspapers need to grab attention in the headline (which usually comes from the sub-editor rather than the reporter who wrote the rest of the story). The less exciting part, often the part with the closest relationship to reality, will probably be buried in the middle somewhere.