Watch Japan Now

Back to Index

(Summary) International Journalists Symposium 2012: The Great East Japan Earthquake and the Role of the Media (April 12, 2012)

post date : 2012.04.12

【Watch Japan Now vol.22/FPCJ】

April 12, 2012


On March 23, 2012, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (MOFA) held the International Journalists Symposium 2012 under the theme “The Great East Japan Earthquake and the Role of the Media–Perspectives of Japanese and Foreign Media.”
(@International Conference Hall, 2nd Floor, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) Research Institute with the audience of about 120, Secretariat: The Foreign Press Center/Japan (FPCJ) ).



A year has passed since the earthquake and tsunami. The government is concentrating on efforts for reconstruction of the disaster-stricken areas and dealing with the nuclear accident. How have the Japanese and foreign media reported the Great East Japan Earthquake and the nuclear power station accident? What are the problems and limitations of the Japanese and foreign media coverage in regard to the earthquake and what should their role be? 


The purpose of this symposium was to invite Japanese and overseas journalists who are active in the front line of journalism as panelists to address the various issues that the earthquake presented and to hold an international exchange of opinions. The symposium, which lasted four hours, was divided into two sessions, “An Examination of the Disaster Reporting by the Japanese and Foreign Media” and “Reconstruction and the Media.” At each session, six of the Japanese and international panelists made opening statements which were followed by lively and meaningful discussion.


The chair of the symposium, Mr. Hiroshi Fuse, Senior Editorial Writer, The Mainichi Newspapers, closed the symposium saying, “Japan has been burdened with many problems after the earthquake. However, it is particularly at times like this that the role of the media comes into question. I believe that the role of the media is not only to deliver accurate information, but also to lead discussions so that we can move forward in the right direction.”


【Opening Remarks by Yutaka Yokoi, Press Secretary and Director-General for Press and Public Relations, MOFA】

At the beginning of the symposium, Press Secretary Yokoi made some opening remarks on behalf of MOFA. He stated that the aim of the symposium was to discuss how the government’s information dissemination and media reporting in times of crisis should be. He hoped that the symposium would result in international and multifaceted discussion, which was focused on journalism and based on accurate information, and that it would result in support for earthquake reconstruction. He further stated that, in regard to the reputational damages after the earthquake, given that many countries have continued to place restrictions on imports from Japan and on travel to Japan, the Japanese government would continue to swiftly provide scientific data in hopes that these countries would review and alleviate restrictions based on up-to-date information. Press Secretary Yokoi said he believed the media would also play a large role in this endeavor. 



【Opening Remarks by Chair Fuse】

In the first session, we will discuss the various issues of the reporting of earthquake damage. The earthquake disaster was a composite disaster that included a tsunami and a nuclear accident. Against the backdrop of a situation in which the term “Fukushima” is circling the globe, we have set a second session to discuss nuclear power. Even after a year since the earthquake, the topic of the earthquake has not gone stale; rather, we still strongly feel the magnitude of what we have lost. Now, even as the danger has not yet passed, I would like to look back on media reporting in the past year with a fresh eye. We have assembled panelists from seven countries who have visited the disaster-stricken areas of the Tohoku region before attending this symposium. Precisely because we are holding a discussion under severe circumstances in which the danger has not yet passed, I would like to see a frank exchange of opinions.


【First Session: An Examination of the Disaster Reporting by the Japanese and Foreign Media】



Mr. Tadashi Ideishi, Senior Commentator (in charge of international affairs), NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation)

NHK released an earthquake bulletin 30 seconds after the earthquake occurred, started broadcasting on-site live footage 6 minutes later, and started broadcasting live footage of the upcoming tsunami 24 minutes later from a helicopter which took off from Sendai Airport. As for the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant accident, we reported the situation using super high resolution cameras from 30 km away. 
NHK, which is Japan’s only public broadcaster, has 460 robot cameras and 14 helicopters stationed around the country and its disaster reporting system is one of the best in the world in terms of equipment, staff, budget, etc. However, there is a limit to what our reporting can do and there were many points on which to reflect. Most importantly, there were many lives we could not save, and we could not provide viewers with accurate information on the nuclear power plant accident as we were not able to grasp the situation easily. 
This disaster was the first mega-disaster to occur in this advanced information society, and various issues were highlighted, such as the collaboration and division of roles between existing media and social media, and how information should be disseminated by the government and companies. Such lessons should be shared across national borders.


Mr. Hiroshi Ogasawara, Chief Editorial Writer, Iwate Nippo (Japan)

As a media outlet located in the disaster area, our mission was to issue a newspaper no matter what, in spite of the blackout and transportation chaos right after the earthquake occurred. With cooperation from newspaper companies in Akita and Aomori prefectures with which we have disaster cooperation agreements, we were able to deliver the Iwate Nippo to evacuation centers the following day. Next we gathered photographs and information of people living in evacuation centers to create a list of evacuees which we ran in our newspaper and also posted it on the websites of other newspapers. This drew a huge response and I sensed the importance of print media as I never had before. 
As the prefectural newspaper of Iwate, which has been hit by massive tsunamis three times in the past, we had more than ten journalists stationed at six posts near the coast and had instructed them on how to evacuate during a tsunami and how to cover the news. Fortunately, we did not suffer any casualties and each of our journalists took photographs of the tsunami, one of which won the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association award. As reconstruction in the disaster areas enters a key stage, the media must also take to its work with renewed determination.


Mr. Qi Su, Deputy Editor, The Caijing Magazine (China)

In disaster reporting, we should avoid being too cooperative or too critical of the government and try to find a middle point. However, if we focus on the government’s side too strongly, we give disaster victims a sense that they are being forgotten. Instead, we should focus on the lives of those living in disaster areas, how people help one another, and the progress of reconstruction. 
Second, we should report from different perspectives. The reason why reporting by the foreign media differs from that of the Japanese media is that they cover news based on the mentalities and context of their countries. For example, debris removal is still ongoing in disaster areas. From the viewpoint of China, where everything happens very quickly, it is quite difficult to understand why families search for their things from the debris or why things happen only with the consensus of all those involved. Additionally, the Chinese would rather have information about radiation than news emphasizing the seismic resistance of the shinkansen. 


Mr. Rohman Budijanto, Executive Director, The Jawa Pos Institute of Pro-Otonomi/JPIP (Indonesia)

The earthquake was well covered in Indonesia by CNN and other media outlets, and the footage of the tsunami and nuclear plant accident brought the apocalypse to our minds. While the Japanese media, government, and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) did not have the means to handle this crisis, the Iwate Nippo and Tokai Shinpo made the maximum effort to deliver hope as friends of the local people. Jawa Pos also covered the earthquake as top news for two weeks, and reported widely on the nuclear plant accident, with the pain of our own Aceh earthquake still fresh in our minds.
In Indonesia, we consider reporting the situation as is to be our number one priority, but the lessons we took from the reporting by the Japanese media were “not to show dead bodies” and to “spread hope.” As disaster-prone countries situated in the same volcanic zone, Japan and Indonesia should share better information dissemination practices with the international media.


Mr. Mohamed Abd-Ellatif Shokeir, Program Editor, Al Jazeera International (Qatar)

The nuclear power plant accident is a separate issue from the earthquake and tsunami, and the information provided by the media and government was conflicted and confusing, fostering a sense of mistrust among viewers. In particular, there was a lack of information that explained the accident in simple terms to the general public, who did not have the necessary scientific knowledge to understand the nuclear plant accident. The foreign media was also confused, and Al Jazeera International focused on the humanitarian aspect of how people were helping one another, rather than issues such as the levels of radiation in Tokyo or water contamination. The mayor of Rikuzentakata City, while angry over indecisiveness in this time of crisis and delays in decision making, is highly motivated to reconstruct the city with his own hands. We dispatched the same reporting team as we did last year to the Tohoku region to cover people’s daily lives and emotional transitions. This approach turned out to be right.
If Japan wishes to share this experience accurately with the world, it should swiftly provide as accurate and as much information as possible in English. There was only a little material regarding this earthquake available in English.


Ms. Kyung Lah, Tokyo Bureau Chief, CNN (U.S.)

Immediately after the earthquake occurred, we conducted live broadcasting from Tokyo over the phone, etc. Simultaneously, we received a flood of iReport footage on from viewers taken with their own mobile phones. From among these, we broadcasted footage such as an apartment complex in Tokyo swaying back and forth. We received a record number of iReports, and we also invested an unprecedented number of reporting staff for earthquake coverage. These records show the importance of Japan’s economic power. In regard to information dissemination from the government and TEPCO after the disaster, there were issues such as delayed and conflicting information or TEPCO providing only a 100-page scientific report. As a correspondent who is responsible for delivering information from Japan, my frustrations mounted in on-site reporting. However, in this situation where there was a clash of cultures, I did my best and tried to remain fair. It was a difficult situation for a non-expert to cover the nuclear power plant issue, but I would like to make use of the many lessons I learned from covering the tsunami and nuclear power plant on a global scale.


Panelists’ Discussion

In the discussion following the opening remarks by the six panelists, many topics came up one after the other. The topics included the mission of journalists in disaster reporting, the pros and cons of reporting using real names, disclosing photos of dead bodies, and handling personal information, the truth about the orderliness of the Japanese people after the earthquake praised worldwide, the true value of the bond of friendship and the seemingly-contrasting avoidance of risk as seen in the debris disposal issue, and the hysteria caused by harmful rumors related to the nuclear power plant accident triggering a boycott of Japanese products.
In regard to the disclosure of photos showing dead bodies, the Qatari panelist commented that it was the point of the story—what it meant—that was important, not the showing of the photograph itself. The U.K. panelist stated that the mass hysteria was the result of information not being provided openly and transparently, and the U.S. panelist commented that it was part of the international media’s responsibility to deliver information in order to temper the hysteria. She also responded to the chair’s comment that there had been criticism about how the strong ties in Japanese society seen immediately after the earthquake had weakened, as can be seen in issues such as the acceptance of debris, stating that the “not in my backyard” attitude was not something unique to Japan, but could be seen all over the world. 
She further commented that they could not ignore the use of social media, which moves at high speed. From the audience, questions were posed regarding collusion and covert agreements by major media outlets, the government, and companies on information disclosure, the priorities of swiftness and accuracy of information to be disclosed, preparations for future disaster reporting, etc. In response to a question from the audience regarding the government’s information dissemination in times of crisis, the U.S. panelist stated that in order to avoid evoking mistrust, it was necessary to convey what was known at the time, even if they did not have all the information, and that the government was required to manage risk.


【Second Session: Reconstruction and the Media】



Mr. Chiharu Mori, Editorial Writer, Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan)

From before the earthquake, the Japanese society had a marked tendency to try to eliminate risk, and the opposition to the wide-area disposal of earthquake debris seems to be based on this zero-risk viewpoint. Japan is perhaps at a stage in which it must reconsider this viewpoint. Furthermore, various rumors spread on the Internet after the earthquake and the problem with information spreading on the Internet lies in its anonymous nature. On the other hand, the mass media covers news using names. While there are criticisms to this approach, the mass media made efforts such as including experts’ opinions to their coverage of government and TEPCO announcements.


Mr. Hisashi Suzuki, Chief Editorial Writer, Fukushima Minpo (Japan)

In the earthquake reporting by the foreign media, there were things that we actually learned about from them such as forecasts of radiation diffusion, the Fukushima Fifty, and the mayor of Minamisoma City, who was chosen by Time magazine as one of the one hundred most influential people in the world. The Fukushima Minpo headquarters are located inland and there was no huge damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami, but we experienced issues such as a lack of gasoline and scaling down of our paper from concern that newsprint stocks would be depleted. Additionally, two of our branch offices, which were located within the 20 km no-entry zone from the nuclear power plant, were forced to evacuate their journalists and transfer their operations.
The people of Fukushima are living in a state of anxiety in conditions of extremely high radiation levels. Announcements and explanations regarding the nuclear power plant accident keep changing, fostering a sense of mistrust of information provided by the government and experts. A year has passed since the earthquake occurred, but its effects are not yet over. Of the population of Fukushima, about 160,000 have evacuated. Of these, about 62,000 have evacuated right out of Fukushima and the outflow of people from Fukushima continues.


Ms. Ulrike Scheffer, Reporter, The Tagesspiegel (Germany)

Following the nuclear accident in Japan, Germany decided to abandon nuclear energy within ten years. In Germany, news coverage on the day of the earthquake focused on the earthquake and tsunami, but later centered on the nuclear power plant. The decision to abandon nuclear energy is supported by 80 percent of the population, but this is not only the result of the Fukushima accident; it is also the result of a long debate.
The German media reported that crisis management, especially information dissemination, of the Japanese government and TEPCO was inadequate, and that not enough information on the risks of radiation was provided even to the Japanese people. A German expert pointed out in a German newspaper, inadequacies in backup and maintenance by TEPCO at the Fukushima power plant as well as in the government’s supervision; that such issues occurred in a democratic nation shocked the people of Germany. Personally, I feel that 1) responsibility for decision-making on nuclear plant policies is being passed back and forth in Japan and 2) government officials say that a consensus must be formed for future policies and reconstruction, but I wonder if they have been ignoring up until now how to form a consensus and if they have an answer to that.


Ms. Priscilla Jebaraj, Reporter/Columnist, The Hindu (India)

Due to the nuclear power plant accident, there was a lot of earthquake-related coverage in India for many days even in regional newspapers, and the name Fukushima suddenly became known nationwide. In these past few months, large-scale anti-nuclear plant demonstrations, in which arrests have been made, have broken out in areas where French and Russian manufactured nuclear power plants are being constructed. In India, similar to Japan before the nuclear accident, the nuclear safety regulation body and nuclear energy promotion body exist within the same government agency, so Indian nuclear energy-related officials should learn from Japan’s experience. There is a tendency to manage information through the central Indian government, and I think that in Japan as well, there were issues about information at the local level, lack of safety policies, etc. The pros and cons of nuclear energy are being debated in India as well, and we need to consider not only its merits, but also costs, risks, and where responsibility lies.


Mr. Sung Ki Lee, Reporter, Hankook Ilbo (R.O.K.)

The Fukushima nuclear accident was a man-made disaster rather than a natural one. Those responsible for the accident should be punished after sufficient investigation. For a speedy reconstruction, procedures for assistance for disaster-stricken companies by local governments should be simplified. Social integration is also important. It is said that in Japan, clashes between regions are escalating and social ties are weakening; the government should take the initiative to resolve such issues. As for its energy policies, Japan’s prime minister stated that Japan would lower its dependency on nuclear energy, and to this end, investment for energy conservation and the development of sustainable energy is necessary. It will be difficult for a developed country to reduce its nuclear energy. While their risks are high, we must find a way to coexist with nuclear power plants.


Mr. Benedict Brogan, Deputy Editor and Chief Political Commentator, The Daily Telegraph (U.K.)

Around the time of the earthquake, access to articles on our website increased around the globe. After the earthquake, we dispatched staff to Japan from London and China within 24 hours to assist our correspondent in Tokyo. For two weeks we extensively covered the earthquake, and there was strong empathy for earthquake-related news in the U.K. as well. Even in this past week, various news agencies have been covering the progress of reconstruction, including delays in debris disposal and the lack of leadership. Journalists must first and foremost provide information that readers can trust and they must pursue details on authority. The media’s accountability and dialogue with readers are also important. With the spread of the Internet and social media, speedy information dissemination and the public’s participation in information dissemination have become possible, making the environment surrounding the media change rapidly. Instead of having such changes unilaterally imposed on us, we, as the “old media,” must lead these changes.


Panelists’ Discussion

During the panelists’ discussion, the comments pointed out by Ms. Scheffer, 1) responsibility for decision-making on policies is being passed back and forth and 2) how to form consensus on policies, were discussed. The chair and Japanese panelists stated that there were debates on promoting versus abandoning nuclear power plants in Japan as well, but there was a tendency for pro-abandonment experts to be excluded from government agencies or commissions. They suggested that perhaps the real issue was that there was a lack of climate in which to discuss the real possibility of a nuclear accident. They also stated that there had been no assumption about what to do in the case of an accident to a nuclear power plant because of the myth of their infallible safety. The U.K. panelist also commented in regard to the debate on whether to restart nuclear plant operations, that it was the role of politicians to make a decision after exhaustive discussion. Additionally, during the question and answer session with the audience, topics such as reporting inside the no-entry zone and the role of non-profit media came up.


【Chair’s Summary】

“I presided over the previous Journalists Symposium as chair as well. At the time of last year’s symposium, held eight days before the earthquake, we could not have even imagined the occurrence of the Great East Japan Earthquake or the nuclear power plant accident. Both Japan and the world are changing greatly after the earthquake, but the importance of the role that the media play will not change. Japan’s dangerous situation arising from the earthquake continues, but it is at times like this that we must meticulously examine the current situation and harness that experience for the future. The Tohoku region is starting to stand on its feet again, but Japan still has many issues to resolve, such as the disposal of debris, weakening of the bond of friendship or kizuna, final resolution of the nuclear power plant accident, as well as political concerns. However, it is particularly at times like this that the role of the media comes into question. I believe that the role of the media is not only to deliver accurate information, but also to lead discussions so that we can move forward in the right direction.”


(Copyright 2012 Foreign Press Center/Japan)

About Us
Covering Japan
News Resources
Activity Reports
Reaching the Press