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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

How Korean Media Saw the 3.11

Kim, Hyong-Suk
Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), Tokyo Bureau Correspondent

The Great East Japan Earthquake had a great impact on South Korea. KBS began broadcasting a special live program soon after the earthquake hit Japan. Usually when a major news breaks out in Japan, KBS provides live footage from Japanese TV station and this earthquake was no exception. In terms of news value, this earthquake was treated almost as important as the bombing of Yeonpyeong Island by the North Korean army.

On March 11th, KBS stopped its usual programs and provided earthquake-related news all night. KBS played the images of huge tsunami surging toward the land over and over again. Later, KBS shifted its focus toward the nuclear accident.

Compared to the Japanese media, the most prominent feature of the Korean media’s earthquake reports was its repeated use of sensational images such as the surging waves. While the Japanese media seemed to restrain from using those images, the Korean media used quite a lot of sensational images and languages.

For example, the titles for TV news on March 11th were like the following: “Entire Japan Burning Down,” “Cruel Scenery,” “Tsunami Hit Strong,” “Abysmally Calamitous,” “Chaos.” These news played shocking images over and over. The audience of Korean TV news would have thought that the entire Japan, not just the East but also the West Japan was in a crisis situation.

The Korean TV stations used these shocking images because we believe images tell the most. We do understand that images have strong effects and that it may affect the viewer ratings. Still, we believed that the most important mission at hand was to convey the images of reality.

Even if Korea experiences a similar, extremely severe disaster we will do the same and focus on broadcasting its images. Korea does not have a lot of natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunami but when there is a huge fire or a typhoon, the media tend to broadcast somewhat sensational images, as long as they do not show dead bodies of the victims.

Korean media treated the Great East Japan Earthquake as a major natural disaster of a neighboring country. It did not occur in Korea and the media were looking at it from a foreign country’s point of view. The Korean people, including journalists, saw the earthquake as an outsider and felt as if they were watching a scene from a movie.

There have been several symposium held in Korea concerning how the Korean media covered the earthquake. One of the most frequently mentioned criticisms is that the Korean media focused on delivering the straight news. The Korean coverage had a lot of news on what happened and what is going on. On the other hand, it is said that the media did not go into or report enough on the issues that surfaced through the earthquake and their backgrounds.

Although there are criticisms, we do believe that we managed to cover the earthquake in a prompt and accurate manner.

The Japanese Media and Foreign Media

While we gathered information and reported from the Tokyo bureau, we checked out the American and German media reports other than Japanese ones from different TV stations. The news and information coming from these foreign media proved to be especially helpful with the Fukushima power plant related issues.

The images broadcasted by the Japanese media were frequently pointed out to be overly restrained but as KBS had a contract with NHK, we used the images from NHK to report the situation. Then, the Internet surfaced as a problem. As the Internet became available and popular the people’s voice and images began to travel across the border. Japanese people began to see news reports coming from the foreign media.

In Korea, it is quite common for TV stations to use images taken by the citizen that appeared in news websites for news programs.

As the TV reports from Korea were getting uploaded to the Internet, the Japanese Internet users began to recognize the difference in the reports. People began to notice how the Korean media used a rather straightforward language in describing the situation compared to the more restrained Japanese news reports. I believe this gap was one of the reasons why people began to suspect the reliability of the Japanese media.

It seems impossible to control such phenomenon in the age of Internet.

Even the KBC’s editors in Korea head office watched BBC reports through the Internet and began asking for images of the dogs gone wild in Fukushima. These requests did tend to ask for sensational images. Even the editors of TV stations seemed to be affected by the Internet.

Nuclear Problem and Media

When we reported the nuclear issue in Japan, we inevitably had to reflect upon the Korea’s energy policies. We placed greatest importance on the safety problem. The more we think about energy problem through the coverage of nuclear accident, it became more and more difficult to say “stop all nuclear power plants immediately.” However, we were reaffirmed that the most important issue in the energy problem is security. After the accident of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Korean people began to think about the security of their own plants.

I also came to realize how much time changes the situation surrounding nuclear power plants. One such example was a case where a land changed its firmness. Nuclear power plants are usually built on places with strong footholds but as time passes, there seem to be places where land becomes prone to earthquakes.

One topic of concern for Korea is the nuclear arms development by Japan. The Koreans tend to be sensitive against rumors surrounding nuclear armament and the Rokkasyo Reprocessing Plant where they process nuclear waste.

The Koreans are concerned with Japan’s nuclear policy because of the past. Many Koreans, including the TV audiences and politicians, have the tendency to connect Japan’s nuclear development policy with nuclear armament. Although extremely few, it is a fact that some Japanese politicians and right-wing activists make the same connection.

Japanese Media Coverage of 3.11

The first thing I noticed about the TV reports after the earthquake was their extremely calm tone amid the ongoing chaos. I was very touched by their steadiness. The way Japanese media reported steadily and accurately, or at least tried to do so deserves a lot of credit.

Another characteristic of the Japanese media reports was the lack of forecast for either what could happen next or what could be the worst-case scenario. This confused me as an employee of a foreign media. Words like “it is safe for the moment” or “it is not an immediate problem” were repeated quite frequently. I believe it had an opposite effect, making people suspicious instead.

After the earthquake, there have been many reports starting with the damages caused by tsunami and the nuclear disaster. A year has passed but I do not think that the nuclear issue has been reported with enough depth, especially concerning the collusive relationship between the government and the electric companies. There may be a fundamental, systematic problem within the Japanese political economy that prevents journalistic inspection. Yet the major Japanese media seem as if they are trying to avoid doing an in-depth report on the issue.

Instead, some magazines and websites wrote about these topics even though these minor media tend to have reliability issues themselves. Since the TV stations kept their tone all the while magazines and some websites revealed government’s unfavorable connections with TEPCO, the TV stations’ restrained stance seemed to stand out.

Why then, are the Japanese media like this?

For example, when it was revealed that the government did not disclose the information gathered through the SPEEDI (System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information), many Japanese media did begin to criticize the government. However, there are many other issues involving the nuclear power that the media seem to avoid reporting adequately, such as the cozy relationship between TEPCO and the government.

3.11 and the Difference Between Japanese and Korean Media

The media seems to be avoiding those issues because they have the custom to not report until they can get testimonies from multiple sources. Korean media, on the other hand, can pursue reports before they accumulate enough testimonies. If it is beneficial for the public, we will broadcast before we are absolutely certain about the facts. This is something Japanese media do not do.

When foot-and-mouth disease broke out in Korea the media and the people worked together to criticize the government’s action toward the epidemic. The media and people shared a common goal and their energy was amplified, eventually forcing the government to accept their claim. I have the impression that these things happen very rarely in Japan.

From a Korean journalist’s point of view, Japanese TV stations and newspapers seem to divide their roles with magazines and other minor media. This analysis may not be quite accurate but the TV and newspaper reports tend to focus on press releases. It may be efficient in terms of delivering accurate news. However sometimes that is not enough. That is where alternative media, or the magazines and others come in to report what was not told by the TV and newspapers, even if they have to make bold decisions. TV and newspaper reports may be accurate but may seem insufficient from the eyes of the audience.

Compared to Korean media, Japanese media seem too cautious. It is important to discuss what type of journalism and function the major media should perform.

Fluctuating Roles of Media Since 3.11

The Great East Japan Earthquake surfaced many challenges and possibilities about journalism and journalists.

There have been many major, large-scale accidents and disasters in the past. Usually when global events, such as the collapse of the Berlin Wall of 1989 or the Sumatra earthquake of 2004 happens, news reports were written and edited at the scene. However, in the 3.11 earthquake the disaster was directly broadcasted worldwide, which seemed to amplify its impact. This was possible because of the development of broadcasting technologies and media system.

On September 11th, 2001, people around the world saw the live footage of the World Trade Center soon after the tower was hit. In the 3.11 earthquake, the world saw something they have never seen: the live footage of tsunami devouring cities where people used to live.

The media didn’t just report the damages from afar. The media went into the affected areas to report what was happening to the world. The media succeeded in showing diverse aspects of the earthquake and tsunami. These were some of the factors that clearly separated the 3.11 earthquake from any other disasters we have ever seen.

Journalists have learned a lot since the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Kim, Hyong-Suk

Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), Tokyo Bureau Correspondent

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