Media and the Great East Japan Earthquake - Vikingess Voyages

Monday, April 30, 2012

Media and the Great East Japan Earthquake

I'm currently writing on my thesis in International Relation, and for my topic I chose to write about last years earthquake in Tohoku focusing on media and their coverage of the disaster. Last week I turned in the first abstract of my paper, but since this version was limited to around 2000 words it does not quite reflect all the work I've done so far.
Still, if anybody has any comments/advices/possible sources etc, I'd be very happy if you'd leave me a comment;)

1 Introduction 
1.1 Background
Japan experienced an unprecedented disaster 11. March 2011 when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake occurred in the northern part of the main island Honshu[1]. Despite preparation to handle rough earthquakes, the force of the following tsunami was unpredictable. As a consequence of breakwaters failure to stop the approximately ten meter high wave, the northeastern Tōhoku region was devastated. Additionally critical damage was sustained to a reactor in Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. An explosion, hypothetically causing what some referred to as a “second Chernobyl”[2], was feared but eventually avoided. The Great East Japan earthquake has been announced 20th century’s fourth largest[3], and caused what Japanese Prime Minister describes as Japan’s most difficult crisis since World War II[4]. 

1.2 Problem Description
In this thesis medias role during the period after the earthquake will be discussed, with the purpose of answering the following research question:What role did the media play in the aftermaths of the Great East Japan Earthquake?
There has already been published many books and articles about media’s role after the Tōhoku earthquake, but these mainly concentrates on Japanese media, and especially the role of social media. The aim with this thesis is however to look at the catastrophe on an international scale, and see how the mass media and the social media reported the situation in Tōhoku to the rest of the world.Literature studies will be conducted to look deeper into media’s methods of coverage, with focus on published books, articles and newspapers. Further, differences in coverage between Japanese and international media will be enlightened. However, the latter will mainly be constrained to news published in English. Trips to the Tōhoku area will be carried out in order to take a look at actual damages, and additionally to carry out interviews with local and international volunteers. The reason for choosing Tōhoku volunteers as focus group is to determine whether their perception of the media differs according to their backgrounds.This thesis aims to provide new insights to the role of media in the wake of natural disasters.

2 General Concepts 
2.1 Mass Media
When it comes to people’s perception of natural disasters it is crucial to look to the media, because of the influence it has on people. According to Wimmer and Dominick (2010), mass media refers to“Any form of communication that simultaneously reaches a large number of people, including but not limited to radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, billboards, films, recordings, books, and the internet” (p. 2). Their definition is however partly problematic, as this thesis consequently separate the mass media from the social media. Media has a unique position to transmit information to the public, and it is thus desirable that recipients of this information critically evaluate media’s role in society. However, through their research McDonald and Lenz (2011) found that between 10 to 25 percent of readers are being influenced by what they read in the newspapers. They thus conclude that the media also might have a very persuasive effect on the public (Ibid). However, there are cases where the veracity of the media can be questioned. Harcup (2009) claims that although journalists aim to tell the truth there are cases where they fail to do so. One reason for this is that despite journalists themselves aiming for objective reporting, various social filters might influence unconsciously (Herman & Chomsky, 1988). Other factors such as time pressure might lower quality of reportage, for instance when presented facts aren’t thoroughly checked (Harcup, 2009). On the other hand Harcup (Ibid) focuses on the interviewed subjects, stating that they sometimes are incorrect, or even lying. Tsuda (2011) believes that two main factors might lead people to dislike mass media. First comes the biased media case, where information provided might seem artificial. Secondly comes medias tendency to follow each other, such as taking the same stance in the face of unprecedented or shocking events. Some might feel that news do not cover all necessary information, while others perceive them as manipulated (Ibid). 

2.2 Social media
Differing from earlier natural disasters such as the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 is the use of social media. While the traditional media can be seen as one-sided, social media on the other hand has the power to engage its readers and invite them to participate in a mutual dialogue (Hansen, Shneiderman and Smith, 2001).Daisuke Tsuda (2011) points to five essential attributes of social media. First is the concept of real time: people can respond immediately to occurrences around them, through Social Network Services (SNS) such as Facebook and Twitter, and thus share their thoughts or opinions with anyone (p. 364). Shocking news are more likely to be spread and read by a large number of people, and this thus creates hot topics (p. 365). His second concept is that of sympathy, or cooperation. People can share all sorts of emotions through SNS and get responses on their options. Tsuda points out that even misunderstandings and negative responses can lead to dialog, and through dialog to cooperation or sympathy between users (p. 365).This again, leads to a fourth point: social media’s openness. Anyone can participate in discussions and thus get their opinions heard. It is easy to participate, but it is also easy to pull out. Lastly, Tsuda talks about process, and states that the limited length of SNS messages gives such social media its designated form. This can again lead to a dialog where short and concise messages are being transmitted easily between users, and the discussion evolves as people respond (p. 366). Tachiiri (2011) points out that since social media is interactive, it creates a bond between its users. Through social media people can support each other or engage in fierce discussions (Ibid, p. 21). Unlike the mass media, social media gives people the chance to speak up or get heard (p.23), and responses can come fast (Ibid, p.22). While mass media is carefully edited and held back by sponsors, the social media does not face such regulation (Ibid, p.23). However, Steve Jobs, founder of world-renowned manufacturer Apple, questions the reliability of social media, stating “we can’t depend on bloggers for our news. We need real reporting and editorial oversight more than ever” (Isaacson, 2011). In opposition to a blog, where anybody can write anything, the journalist has to actually collect the relevant information while carefully considering the sources used. At the same time, in the case of the mass media measures are being taken to ensure that what is being published corresponds to the actual described occurrences.News spread fast, and at times social media might even be more up to date than the mass media (Tachiiri, 2011: p. 23). This might be taken as a sign that the social media plays a more important role in spreading news to the people than traditional media. However, as Schultz, Utz and Göritz (2011) have found, news are being talked about more than tweets or blog posts. This might indicate that although social media can transmit news faster, traditional mass media still is considered a more reliable source for news. 

3 Problem Description 
3.1 Mass Media and the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake
In the wake of the disaster in Japan, media all over the world reported about the incident. Although it meant that people all over the world could stay up-to-date on the events in Japan, there were also critics claiming that the foreign media was exaggerating the danger of the situation in Japan[5]There are various problems related to this type of journalism. For instance, in the period after the earthquake a lot of foreigners decided to escape Japan as a result of panic, leaving the Japanese with the new expression ”fly-jin”, a term describing the foreigners, gaijin, fleeing from Japan[6].Anther problem with this type of reporting is that it can complicate the early recovery process (Huang & Min, 2002; Milo & Yoder, 1991).Two factors, which in particularly have had an effect on the way news spreads across boarders, are globalization and the information revolution. Globalization, which Nye (2007) defines as a “worldwide network of interdependence”, can make occurrences in one geographical make the headlines in other parts of the globe. Following globalization comes the so-called information revolution: from 1993 to the end of the decade the number of Internet pages across the world rose from about 50 to over 5 million, and the global usage of Internet went up 170 percent between 2000 and 2005 (Nye, 2007). As an effect of this, news can be shared over greater distances at shorter speed, and with this global interdependence network what happens on the other side of the world also affects us to a greater extent than previously. 

3.1.1 International Media
(Currently writing) 

3.1.2 Japanese mediaJapanese media was also subjected to criticism related to their coverage. Gouhara (2011) argue that media cooperated with Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) already before the accident, and that they deluded the public into believing nuclear power was safe by oversimplifying the emergency process of closing down power plants. Uesugi (2011) further claims that Tepco and the Japanese Government influenced mass media to hold back information regarding damages and nuclear leaks at Fukushima Daiichi. This claim is grounded on initial exclusivity for press club members to participate in Tepco’s press conferences, which Uesugi suggests limited critical questioning. Press clubs, or kisha clubs, were first time introduced by a small number of reporters in 1890, and the initial purpose was to allow members participation in Imperial Diet meetings. Today, however, press clubs plays a central role in communication between media and government/authorities. Critics claim that the exclusivity of membership is excluding, particularly to foreign reporters, magazine writers and freelance journalists[7]. Supporters of the Japanese press clubs disagree, saying that magazine members and freelance journalists are focusing on getting flashy quotes, and thus might interfere with the conferences[8]. However, considering Tepco annually supports commercial broadcasting with 20 billion yen (Uesugi, 2011), Japanese mass media’s reluctance to put negative focus on nuclear energy is not too shocking. An example here is the many anti-nuclear demonstrations: Iwaki (2011) claims the media either downplayed their significance, or simply avoided writing about the topic. Although Japanese media faces critics for a claimed lack of consistency and concealing information concerning the incidents in Fukushima[9], considering the unprecedented nature of the crisis it is still arguable that Japanese media did their best. Ending the International Journalist Symposium 2012, The Mainichi Newspapers Senior Editorial Writer Hiroshi Fuse stated that despite last years disaster burdening Japan he believe that ”the role of the media is not only to deliver accurate information but also lead discussions so that we can move forward in the right direction” (MOFA, 2012). 

4. Methods
A qualitative research was conducted in November 2011, and the focus group was people working as voluntaries in affected areas of Tohoku. Although all subjects come from different backgrounds, they are linked together through their volunteer work. It is logical to believe that individuals who has made a decision to work as a volunteer in this area must have done a certain amount of research before going there, and thus the purpose of these interviews is get a clearer view of how people affected by the reports of the media perceived the coverage. My ontological perspective is that of critical realism, as developed by Roy Bhaskar (Archer et al, 2004): I believe that people are capable, and that I thus can extract pertinent information from their experiences through my interviews. 

5. Future priorities
-Conduct more trips to Tōhoku in order to interview more people. Time and lenght depends of recovery of my shoulder, which I broke in an accident in spring-break.-Strengthen the academic aspect of the paper  

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[7] Japan Times (May 3,2011):
[8] Former of Sankei Shimbun’s politics division Nobuaki Hanaoka, in Japan Times (May 3, 2011)
[9] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan:

Picture taken during my trip to Ishinomaki-shi in November 2011

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About Anette
Anette came to Japan as an exchange student in 2010, met the love of her life and got stuck. From her base in Tokyo she writes about her experiences as a full-time worker in Tokyo and about her travels in Japan and abroad. She's a free-spirited adventurer who enjoys both the great outdoors and her urban lifestyle.

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A modern day shield-maiden who loves to explore the unbeaten paths of the world. From her base in Tokyo, Anette takes on both rural and urban challenges, and goes by the motto "No challenge too big, no adventure too small"!
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