This is an open letter I will be sending to the publications who have produced bad journalism concerning the earthquake & its aftermath in Japan.
To the media,
I write to you as an American citizen and former news reporter living abroad in Oyama, Tochigi thoroughly discouraged by your organization’s coverage of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant problems in Japan.
Overall, reporting on these events have been alarmist, sensational, and shockingly factless. Between speculative quotes from “experts,” comparisons to Chernobyl, and the gross exaggerations of people fleeing Tokyo, the portrayal of Japan this past week has been an absolute disgrace to the field of journalism.
I would like to enumerate the myriad of reasons why responsible coverage of such monumental events is crucial:
Your stories and broadcasts will color history. People will look at news clippings and websites after this disaster has faded from prominence in world news to understand it as it was happening. You have an obligation to report the truth.
Facts & follow up
An important means of truthful, responsible reporting involves facts. Facts have either been missing, mislabeled, or untimely. When the State Department urged all Americans to leave Japan or that America widened its evacuation perimeter it is your responsibility and duty to find out why. You need to probe them with questions. You are the middleman between the public and those in power. People need to understand cause and effect, the reason behind things, not just statements plainly delivered.
The pressures of 24-hour media
As a former reporter and journalism minor, I understand the pressure to produce new articles. The public wants to be informed and you need to give updates. The key point here is informed. I have now spent hours of my life reading through articles with sensational headlines only to find the same information I already know regurgitated. In some cases, material has been copied verbatim from a previous article. This is not to suggest you omit crucial information or background, but be concise about it.
Families in living rooms, people on the train, and water cooler conversations are not sole contexts of discussion about Japan’s recent disasters. Many Americans are in Japan, and not all of them have ties to this country as gossamer as hotel reservations. Some of us live here. There are students here on study abroad programs, English teachers like myself, business men and women, as well as people from other professions who have laid down roots, be they for months or years, in Japan. For those of us who don’t speak Japanese we rely on coverage from our home country.
While I’m concerned for my life and safety, I’m sifting through numerous sources trying to figure out who’s being responsible in all of this. You are not one of them.
Americans at home
Furthermore, those Americans living abroad have family members at home concerned for their safety. Stories about toxic clouds, nuclear ninjas, radiation speculation, an exodus from Tokyo, and imminent meltdown have stirred up a fear in people at home not easily assailed. I have been inundated with e-mails and Facebook messages asking if I’m okay, asking me to come home. Friends and family members approach me with headlines and “facts” genuinely scared for my safety because of alarmist coverage. With all the stress I am dealing with, I’m trying to console those at home. This simply shouldn’t be. I wouldn’t have to do this if things were portrayed as they are.
One of the most debilitating effects of Chernobyl was psychological. Think about that next time you want to embellish a story.
Everything isn’t about Tokyo
How many people in the world had heard of Sendai or Fukushima before this disaster? How many are familiar with Japan’s geography? Just because Tokyo is Japan’s capital and it’s nearly certain people will recognize the city does not mean it takes precedence in news coverage for something that happened about 150 miles away. Thousands of people have died and there are many more homeless in the Fukushima prefecture. Rather than reporting on Fukushima and the areas closest to it, articles continue to mention the effects in Tokyo. Yes, there are a considerably larger number of people in Tokyo than where I live, but there are still people here.
Why you’re losing readers and respect
If you want to know why young people don’t read the news, why paper sales are falling and why publications are closing it’s because your readers are customers. You are producing a good – supposedly valuable information – and when your product becomes substandard your customers will flock to more appealing options.
If you want to know why journalists get grouped in with lawyers and politicians it’s because the institution disappoints the public. We lose faith in you. We distrust you. As a journalism student, we were taught to uphold the principles of journalism: smart, unbiased reporting of events was the cornerstone of all lectures and assignments. News organizations have a responsibility to the public to keep them informed. When crisis occur, we look to you to guide us through times of trouble, to keep a bit of sanity amidst the confusion and clear our heads with the power of knowledge. To see the media abandoning this in favor of what I can only understand as increasing sales or web hits via sensationalism is the reason I criticize your publication.
I implore you to consider the implications and effects of what you publish the next time you write a headline or deck, make a suggestion to a reporter, urge them to get quotes or shoot for a specific angle. Report what is happening and do it well.
If this letter hasn’t ended up in a spam mailbox or discarded, I thank you for reading and hope you will heed my words.