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JAMCO Online International Symposium

20th JAMCO Online International Symposium

March to August, 2012

The Great East Japan Earthquake: Japanese TV Coverage and Foreign Reception

Taiwan's 3.11

Hsuan, Sheng Fang
Taiwan Television (TTV NEWS) Tokyo Correspondent

Taiwan’s Coverage of 3.11

On September 21st, 1999, Taiwan experienced the “921 Earthquake” of magnitude 7.6. For the media and audience in Taiwan, this earthquake was the first thing that came up to their mind when they saw the Great East Japan Earthquake.

When the earthquake hit Japan, I was in a car heading toward Shinjyuku for an interview. As the Tokyo correspondent of the Taiwan TV, I called the head office in Taipei right away to report the unusual nature of the earthquake. Soon after my cell phone was out of use. The traffic prevented me from going back to the Tokyo office of Taiwan TV in Daiba, Tokyo. I had to go to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (FCCJ) in Yurakucho to send the first images of the earthquake to the Taipei headquarter. There were electricity in the building but the elevator was stopped, so we had to carry our tools all the way up to where the FCCJ is, which was on the 20th floor.

On the way to the FCCJ from Shinjyuku, I filmed people coming out of buildings and gathering in open spaces to wait until the situation settles. This was one of the first images I sent to Taipei. What was impressive for me at the moment was the fact that the Japanese people seemed to have been already mentally prepared for such a massive earthquake. The people were acting very calmly.

It was five o’clock when I sent the initial report to Taiwan. I mentioned that although the Tohoku region of Japan received the greatest damage, Tokyo was being affected too, such as the disturbed transportation system. The Taiwan TV was broadcasting breaking news from CNN an hour before I was able to send the report.

For the rest of the day, I kept on reporting the situation in Tokyo, about the transportation systems that was dysfunctional until midnight and about the huge crowd of people who could not go home because of the lack of transportation. The head office recognized the severity of the situation and formed a special reporting team on the night of March 11th, preparing for the departure to Japan. I met the crew from Taiwan on the next day and began preparing for interviews in the affected areas.

Coverage of the Affected Areas

It is difficult to view the situation from afar when you are reporting from disaster-ridden areas. I have gone to natural disaster sites for several times. Normally, when a journalist is in the affected areas they will only see what is in front of them and normally cannot receive information on the other areas. It is difficult to grasp the situation as a whole. It is the desk’s job in the head office, in our case the Taipei office that is responsible for gathering information from different locations to come up with the big picture.

Two important factors in disaster reporting or any major disaster reporting is following reports from other media and constantly keeping the journalist on the field informed, so that the journalist on the ground will be able keep the general situation in mind.

After the earthquake, our desk in Taipei was receiving reports from the company’s journalists while keeping close attention to the CNN, BBC and NHK in order to grasp the situation.

Apparently the most reliable source of information was the Japanese media. Recently the number of Japanese satellite broadcasting channels, viewable from Taiwan, has increased. We were able to look at the Japanese TV reports through these satellite channels and the Internet.

However, it was quite evident that the Japanese media were confused themselves. The numbers did not match and the severity of the situation was described differently. It was difficult for our desk to decide which information to believe.

From our previous experiences we had the understanding that the NHK has the greatest coverage capability. We focused on the NHK reports than any other media but our impression of the NHK was that the announcer spoke very calmly, as if he is not talking about a major disaster. This is a debatable issue.

Was such a tone of voice appropriate for the situation? For us, this tone of voice raised concerns as to the reliability of the report.

On the other hand, it is true that the announcer’s composed tone gave a sense of stability and security to the audience. Under such a confusing situation the composed tone of voice was distinctive from other media and that gave NHK a sense of reliability.

This confusion was shared not only by the Taiwanese journalists in Japan but also by the desk in Taipei. The desk called the Tokyo office repeatedly to find out the accuracy and reliability of the reports coming from the Japanese media since reports were being delivered in a rather varied ways. The Taipei TV tried to understand the situation with the 921 Earthquake of 1999 in mind. From our perspective, the calm nature of the media reports raised questions as to whether the Japanese media is really telling the truth, that the situation may be severer than they report, that the death toll could be higher.

The areas surrounding the Fukushima nuclear power plant seemed to be worse than it was reported. Since we could not go near the nuclear power plant, all we were left to believe was that the images coming from Japan is telling the truth. While we were checking out images from Japan, we realized that the foreign media such as the CNN and APTV were describing the situation in a more alarming way. The alarming tone of the foreign media gave us doubts about the trustworthiness of the Japanese media.

The Japanese media did seem very calm in delivering the news but that gave us doubts whether they were really telling the truth. Even the NHK, with its strongest coverage capabilities and reliability, seemed to be hiding its organizational conservativeness behind the overly calm tone. From the beginning, we had doubts that the Japanese media may not be reporting all of their findings. From the second day, we relied more on major American media such as the CNN and ABC, treating the Japanese media with less importance.

This decision was made due to the difference in the level of disclosure.

For example, when the U.S. government reported that the Americans should evacuate beyond 80 km radius from the Fukushima power plant, the Japanese government’s evacuation radius was only 30 km. These differences in seriousness made us question the Japanese government’s disaster response. The government was a major source of information but it did not seem to be revealing enough information to the media. On the other hand, foreign media, especially the American ones, seemed to be able to gather accurate information of the situation and seemed to report their findings without hiding.

Of course the foreign media does not know about Japan as much as the Japanese media and they do tend to report sensationally, which may be criticized to some extent. However, it is difficult to decide what to believe in such a situation with paucity of information. In such situations, it is important for the Japanese media to disclose as much information as possible.

Shifting Focus of Mass Media

Because of the major earthquake in 1999 and the fact that Japan and Taiwan rests on the same oceanic plate margins (between Eurasian and Philippine plate), the Taiwanese people have been quite interested in large-scale earthquakes in Japan. The Taiwanese media headed to Japan hoping to convey the news as soon as possible. The Taipei office told us to go deeper into the affected areas. The same goes to other media too, and I left for Fukushima on the night of the second day, March 12th.

If I was asked to look back and point out the fundamental problems on the disaster reporting, I still do not think I have a firm grasp of it.

Especially since we only focused on the disaster reporting from Japan during the first week and shifted our attention to collecting charities within Taiwan. The mass media changes its focus in a very short period of time. Clearly we can learn a lot from Japan’s effort for reconstruction. If Taiwan was hit with similar disaster, we can refer to the Japan’s case to decide how the public and private sectors should act. However, Taiwan’s mass media is not really interested in that. We are not interested in how we should face a major national disaster or how we should prepare for such disasters. This is a reflection of the Taiwanese audience’s interest. In other words, the truth is that as long as the issue does not directly affect Taiwan, the Taiwanese people and the media will not show strong interest. In fact, the call for news updates from the Taipei headquarter quickly decreased after two weeks since the earthquake.

Going back to the Fukushima coverage, after I came back to the Tokyo office from Fukushima, the head office ordered a temporary evacuation. This decision was made according to the foreign media’s movements. I went west and stayed in Kansai for about a week. In the meanwhile the Taipei office took care of Tokyo office’s function by gathering reports from the Japanese media, especially from the Fuji TV Network with whom we have a partnership. Since the Fuji TV provided us with both information and images we did not necessarily have to go to the scene. As the situation settled down, I went back to Tokyo to interview people on how they are responding to the nuclear disaster.

Gradually, Taiwan’s attention shifted from reporting the situation in Japan to gathering charities and donations for the victims.

Although historically it is clear that the way Taiwanese people perceive and feel about Japan is different from other countries, the power of images provided by the mass media right after the 3.11 earthquake seems to have contributed a lot to the charity movements. The shocking images of tsunami and the affected areas raised the people’s desire to help.

Some people say that the charity activities in Taiwan are not being reported a lot in Japan. However, it may be understandable that Japan does not have the leisure to report details on each donation they receive.

Foreign Media’s Lack of Readiness for Disaster Coverage

After the earthquake, numerous foreign media rushed into the disaster scene that was still under great confusion. They should have carried basic items necessary for covering affected areas and emergency satellite communication devices. Instead, all that the foreign reporters had was the most basic reporting tools and personal items. They had neither tools necessary for reporting from disaster sites nor emergency food.

As a consequence, the reporting crew in the affected areas sometimes could not send reports because of power blackouts and could not reach destinations because of traffic problems. Some reporters went out of food and water and ended up asking for help in the relief centers for victims.

These journalists were ignorant of the situation and the feelings of the victims, showing their lack of professionalism.

Taiwan Media and Nuclear Disaster

The nuclear disaster was a very difficult issue for foreign journalists to cover. Getting information from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and the Fukushima Daiichi power plant proved to be extremely difficult.

Japan was not ready to receive massive attention from foreign media for large-scale natural disasters. Except for the major media like the CNN, most foreign media have limited coverage capability in Japan. Most foreign journalists need cooperation and support in conducting interviews and information must be disclosed in a systematic manner if their coverage was to be facilitated. The TEPCO’s briefings were impossible to understand. Since there were no English briefings some western media decided that it is meaningless to attend the press conference. Many journalists were infuriated by the disturbing conditions that prevented them from reporting the nuclear disaster. They responded by sharing information they gathered in the field with each other.

The truth is that most journalists are not familiar with nuclear issues such as the contamination effects of radiation leak. It is even more difficult for foreign correspondents to grasp the situation in Japan.

My impression of Japanese media’s reports on the nuclear disaster is that most TV stations did their best in gathering up journalists from different parts of the country and covering the issue. However, in order to report the big picture, there were clearly not enough journalists who specialize in nuclear issues and not enough scientists in the country who can describe the situation properly.

It is a difficult question as to how the mass media and journalism should respond to such situations. The 3.11 earthquake taught us many things in that sense.

If we look at Taiwan’s situation, Taiwan has an active nuclear power plant with the same design as the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, built by the General Electrics. This was reported by the TBS and Taiwanese media have brought the issue up in discussion programs few days after the nuclear disaster. The Taiwan’s nuclear power plant in question is only 30 km away from Taipei and some journalists were alarmed by the Japan’s accident. However, Taiwanese media shift their focus quite rapidly. New issues rise ever so often that a single foreign issue cannot stay in the media discussion for so long. One major topic that caught media attention was the presidential election. As the share of domestic news began to increase, reports on nuclear issues in Japan were given less and less time and space.

The Japanese media did have an efficient coverage capability. In terms of broadcasting, it seemed like the TV stations were functioning properly. NHK utilized its extensive resources and broadcasting network and commercial TV stations were working together with local stations and its affiliates quite successfully that as one audience, I felt that the TV stations seemed to be reporting substantial amount of information on the 3.11 earthquake.

However, in retrospect I do think there was limited information available on media, especially concerning the nuclear disaster. The nuclear disaster reports lacked both volume and depth. For some time after the earthquake, we seemed to be satisfied by the reports coming from the Japanese media. Yet, looking back, the media reports did seem to be controlled extensively so as to prevent social confusion. It seems that media reports were being delivered while the government, the TEPCO and media all cooperated to prevent social confusion.

Compared to foreign media including Taiwanese ones, Japanese journalists seem to be too serious that they tended to not push through. Taiwanese media would have criticized the government and electric companies more aggressively, asking questions until we got into a fight. Instead, Japan had a sense of “peacefulness.” Perhaps the lack of media attack made things easier for the government. Perhaps it was fortunate for the Kan cabinet.

In any case, the Taiwan’s media learned a lot of lessons from the 3.11 earthquake, including the possibility that Taiwan could face similar situation in the future.

In Taiwan, media competition is severe. Historical ties to Japan are quite deep and normally there are many tourists visiting Japan. Unfortunately despite the fact that the earthquake mainly affected the Tohoku area, many Taiwanese tourists decided not to go to Japan. Under the circumstance Hokkaido tried to invite media from countries like Taiwan, Korea, China, Hong Kong and Singapore to cover the region freely in order to regain the tourist. Taiwan’s media were the only ones that accepted the invitation and that is representative of our familiarity with Japan.

For the Taiwanese media always looking for new topics to report, the fact that travel and tourism to places other than the affected areas are bouncing back may be interesting news to cover other than the progress made in reconstruction.

Hsuan, Sheng Fang

Taiwan Television (TTV NEWS) Tokyo Correspondent

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