The media’s telling of the Japan story has been inexcusably bad. I can’t count the number of pieces about confinement breaches and radiation surges; where they are not information-free they are wrong, and where they are not wrong, they bypass what matters. Here are a few specifics.

  • The real story in Japan, by any objective measure, is the sustained post-tsunami desperation among those whose lives were swept away, and the narrative about the rescue and cleanup workers all over the Northeast. Read much of that? Me neither.

  • Bloggers and other flavors of lone wolf are publishing heart-wrenching photo-essays from the front line of the recovery effort. Newspapers and TV networks? They’re writing about the temperature of the water in some part (they don’t specify which) of some damaged reactor, illustrating it with video screen grabs of machinery they don’t understand enough to explain.

  • People across oceans from Japan should fear radiation? Um, what was the half-life of 131I again?

  • One of the best sources for just-the-facts about what’s going on is in fact a journalist, Martyn Williams. Mind you, he works for tech news outfit IDG, and the best way to sample his wares is via his tweetstream.

    But the two deepest pieces of reporting I’ve read recently are by Randall Munroe and Charles Stross. That’s right, an Internet cartoonist and a pop-sci-fi author.

  • Of course, you can go get the real info from the MIT Nuclear Information Hub. Now, wouldn’t it be cool if there were a profession which went and digested the essential technical background and used it to tell us the real human story of the news in a way that’s compatible with facts? If only.

  • There have been many reports about the people fleeing Tokyo. None of these narratives have paused to consider whether the exodus constitutes chickenshit stupidity. I suggest it maybe does.

And right now in springtime, the New York Times is going, the mainstream media hopes, to lead them all on the path to a paywall; we’ll recognize the value they’ve been offering us and sign up for what they offer. Me, I think they picked the wrong year.

I personally think the Japanese are going to astound the world with the speed of the bounce-back. And I hope to visit Tokyo later this year.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Janne (Mar 21 2011, at 23:28)

My parents and relatives have hounded me to return, even though we live in Osaka, very far from any impact from the quake or tsunami. Many of the foreigners fleeing Tokyo for their home countries are likewise pressured from home and know the fear is grossly exaggerated. They'll get more extra radiation during their flight home than they would ever get staying in Tokyo.

Some Japanese do leave Tokyo, but most do so because of the blackouts and transportation problems rather than for any fear for their safety, and they simply travel down the coast to Osaka or Kyoto. Most foreign governments' travel recommendation are also all about the infrastructure problems, not safety.

Oh well, I guess road and utility repairs and a long, slow, heartbreaking search for bodies doesn't sell as well as a sexy nuclear disaster.


From: Dave (Mar 22 2011, at 00:37)

The news, at least since 9/11, but probably began around the time CNN started the 24/7 news cycle, has become focused on what is the worst thing happening in the world at the current moment in time.

And then get one or more 'experts' to say how the current situation is about to:

-get MUCH MUCH worse

-happen in your own home, neighbourhood and/or local school

-happen to one or all of your children


From: Jon Ellis (Mar 22 2011, at 00:44)

Tiny quibble, you probably mean Iodine 131 (half-life ~8 days).

And, just to re-inforce your point, the disparity between the us / uk and japanese media is extreme. I'm all for a little Tepco bashing (they have a terrible history) but, at this point they, perhaps under pressure from the government, have been a damn sight more informative than anything i've seen in the western press.

Understand the use of the "chickenshit" phrase, but at this point such language is causing strife in the foreign community in Tokyo. Currently it's probably better for us to just accept that everyone has to evaluate their own risk tolerance, and make the best decisions that they can...

I'm hunkered down a little west of Tokyo and waiting for things (literally and figuratively) to blow over.


From: Björn Ritzl (Mar 22 2011, at 01:18)

I totally agree. Sure, the situation with damaged nuclear power plants is not a good one, but the real problems and what the media should focus on are the really hard conditions for the thousands of now homeless families struggling to survive in the areas most damaged and the heroic efforts of the rescue and cleanup.

And you're completely right, Japan will bounce back faster than most think!


From: Beat Bolli (Mar 22 2011, at 01:26)

What you observe is true, also in Europe.

Of course, without the spin, our left media wouldn't be able to advance their agenda, which is to put an end to nuclear energy.


From: Robin (Mar 22 2011, at 01:52)

The Guardian (UK)’s live blog has been apologetic about their focus on the nuclear reactor, and consistently dropped in updates on the rescue effort.

Didn’t stop them from continuing the reactor focus though.


From: Jurgen Schaub (Mar 22 2011, at 05:15)

I've been liking The Register's coverage - for a UK-based cheeky tech tabloid, they're doing some very good fact-based stuff. It's all about the nuclear aspect of the disasters, but it's certainly better than mainstream journalists. Even Al Jazeera, and I expect better from them.


From: mihai turcu (Mar 22 2011, at 05:23)

I guess the question is this: would you move just outside the Fukushima exclusion zone, you and your kids, if you were given a hefty financial bonus? Because talking is easy, especially when you're half the globe away as those MIT guys are.

Look at this guy for serious reporting on a nuclear accident:

He risked his freedom and even his life to report about the true consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. Here's the book he co-wrote about it:

Otherwise, like I said, it's easy to blog about a nuclear accident when you're half a globe away, enjoying your Venti at Starbucks.


From: Xah Lee (Mar 22 2011, at 05:29)

going against convention here, but the real problem is YOU, the human animal.

news outlets report the way they did because that's what people want. Perhaps consciously that's not what you want, but our behaviors collectively, goes for the lurid photos, the dramatic stories.


From: Gabriel Ross (Mar 22 2011, at 05:49)

A quick google search reveals that while iodine 139 has a half life of 2.3s, iodine 131 is the isotope that results from nuclear fission. That one has a half life of 8 days.


From: jimg (Mar 22 2011, at 05:55)

Agreed - the whole nuclear plant issue is a small sideshow compared to the catastrophe that the people of japan have - and are still - facing.

Another good source of balanced info of the status of Fukushima can be found at - I think it's a good parter to the mitnse site.


From: Nicolás Boullosa (Mar 22 2011, at 06:05)

Mainstream media are not delivering anymore when it comes to crucial events such as Japan. I agree with the diagnosis and think the trend will only deepen. With real time info, some overreactions are embarassing as time puts things in its place.


From: Alan P (Mar 22 2011, at 06:06)

Agree - we wrote this last week in protest:


From: Another Dave (Mar 22 2011, at 06:29)

Well, the reason why the reactor is more of a story than the tsunami is that the tsunami was not avoidable, whereas the reactor accident was.

People in Tokyo should fear the plutonium in reactor 3. Plutonium is not only radioactive, but highly toxic.

I am no friend of fearmongering, but the worst case scenario (however unlikely) is an uninhabitable Tokyo. I think you are doing the people fleeing a disservice if you call them stupid. It's very easy to dismiss their fears from thousands of miles away.


From: Boris Knack (Mar 22 2011, at 07:39)

Dear Tim,

That's short and informative, nothing left unsaid. Another fine piece I've read recently comes from Evan Osnos in the March, latest New Yorker magazine -- mainstream, sure, but not a bad rag on one of its good days. He takes the "human approach"; the half-life of people trumps the half-life of nuclear properties, TEPCO or Tokyo's idiot mayor.




From: Anthony In Seattle (Mar 22 2011, at 08:00)

I'm just going to ignore the REALLY passive aggressive post above even though it really torques me.

Thanks so much for expressing what I've been feeling ever since this tragedy began. I read the NYT iPad app every morning, and at one point, there were 4 or 5 stories about the nuclear incident in the "Top News" and just one about the effects of the Tsunami. I was incensed.

My guideline for reading these articles quickly became asking the simple question "And??". This is my general way to filter out puff-pieces. If there's no "And??" then it's just fear-mongering tripe.

Also, I noticed one of the commenters pulled out the worn out "it's the people not the media" trope.

The media curates the news and makes very definite decisions about what they present and how. This decision making process is certainly much more nuanced than a simple, one-dimensional, "What do they want??" approach. To claim otherwise is either ignorant or insulting. Possibly both.

Instead, I feel like the media are reacting to cultural memes and moires like we all do. "No Nukes" is a powerful sentiment in Western culture. I believe the root of this sentiment is that people just don't understand what nuclear power is, how it works. And we fear what we don't understand and well, we don't react very rationally or responsibly when we're scared.

I hope Tim will forgive me for being presumptuous and guessing his mental state, but I'm sure a big part of what bothers him is what bothers me. Namely that all this bad reporting is just ignorance about nuclear power reinforcing more ignorance about nuclear power in the giant media echo chamber.

I think the best thing that could come out of all of this, is if a great media organization like the NY Times took the time to do a really informative piece on how nuclear power really works. The basic concepts behind controlled nuclear reactions. Why it works. How it works. How reactors work. How they're safe and how they're not.

IF a thoughtful, non-biased piece on nuclear power was written, I think it would appeal to one of humanity's fundamental drives; to understand. I think that drive to understanding is what drives people to these nuclear puff-pieces in the first place. I do hope that some great news organization has the wherewithal to understand this, and to write "the" great article on nuclear energy. I think they'd be doing a great public service.



From: Sophie (Mar 22 2011, at 11:31)

While I agree with much of this piece, two remarks:

- while Iodine isotopes have short half-lives, Caesium-137, also present in the plants effluents, has a half-life of about 30 years.

- I concur with the remark about plutonium present in MOX fuel of the n°3 reactor, in which the level of destruction is impressive and which “behaviour” still seems not under control.


From: Nick (Mar 22 2011, at 17:11)

I have mixed feeling on this.

I agree that much of the mass-media hysteria about impending nuclear disaster is unhelpful. At the same time, many bloggers have (almost by reflex) taken the contrary position.

The chart (taken from provides a good counter-point to the xkcd chart. It shows there are genuinely risky levels of radiation at the plant (and even at the main gate - orders of magnitude higher than the xkcd chat shows).

The other interesting thing is the number of people in California who were worried about "a huge radiation cloud coming over the Pacific". Given that California has its own reactors, and its own fault line, and its own non-zero risk of tsunamis I would have thought they would have had better things to worry about.


From: len (Mar 22 2011, at 17:49)

<em>Now, wouldn’t it be cool if there were a profession which went and digested the essential technical background and used it to tell us the real human story of the news in a way that’s compatible with facts?</em>

The closer one is to a profession, the more one is aghast at the misinformation in media. All media. I miss Jules Bergmann.

Would I have gotten my family out of Japan as the news reports came in about Fukushima. Oh my yes. I grew up near Browns Ferry, the same model GE reactor and talked to the plant technical manager after the first nuclear accident the night of that accident.

Oh my yes, because it was obvious the Japanese managers were lieing through their teeth about the seriousness of the situation. Only a thick headed egotistical self-centered dum dum would do otherwise, if for no other reason than if one steps away from the technical information mostly missing, the scale the events mean that resources are going to be in short supply and during a massive response, the fewer non-contributors standing around the better, and to the devil with appearances. We may not be as important as we think ourselves to be.

But a slightly different take: let's talk about "the mainstream". I note that of the parade of experts on all of the various mainstream networks, most are men, and in most cases, are being interviewed by women. As I write this Diane Sawyer is on C-SPAN talking in part about the rise of women in the news markets and quoting Jack Welch who said that the numbers of women made a difference in the success of the news, and those of us who worked at Jack's GE can say with some confidence, he meant on the bottom line, the profitability of the mainstream.

Are you blaming women for the lack of technical depth in the reporting of the disaster? Given both of us have lamented in our careers about the paucity of women in our profession, do you think it possible that their choice to be other than technical in technical fields (percentages here; exceptions barely matter) affect their inability in the broadcast field to do more than human interest, so-called, chick news?


From: Mason Mark (Mar 23 2011, at 00:59)

I totally feel you on the breathtakingly poor media coverage of these events. But, with the 'chickenshit stupidity' thing, you are completely nuts. When you wrote this post, radioactive contaminants in the water were still pretty low. Today, they are up 7000% from two days ago, and the government is alerting residents not to let your kids drink it.

Getting out of Tokyo for a spell wasn't about the rather benign levels of radioactivity then present--it was about the possiblilty that those levels might soon become dangerous, which they now have. I think all the people with small children who left in the past few days were a lot more prudent than chickenshit or stupid. (Bonus question: what will the water contaminants look like tomorrow? How about the next day?)


From: Stephen Hilderbrand (Mar 23 2011, at 09:34)

Tim, I agree with much of what you're saying, but I do recommend you check out the 60 Minutes story on the tsunami and immediate aftermath -- the frigid cold, the people still in shock, survivors searching the remains for loved ones. I believe this aired last Sunday. It is a very moving portrayal of events that doesn't dwell on the sensationalism of nuclear fears.

I have to admit that as a child of the Cold War, any mention of the term "nuclear" gets my heart racing, and I'm sure I'm not alone. As I said above, I agree with most of your points -- the media has lost its focus across the board, and took advantage of all of us in sensationalizing these events without much information to go on.


From: Peter Keane (Mar 23 2011, at 11:57)

I suspect that the concern/hysteria/worry about recent events depends a lot on the the human involvement in the cause: from none ("act of God") to negligence/error to malevolence on something like a exponential curve. Look at the reaction to 9/11 (malevolence) and the incredible harm the over-reaction to that brought about. There is something of human-nature in that, though (and may suggest why the nuclear accident reaction).


From: Jim Harvie (Mar 24 2011, at 20:41)

Apparently you are afraid to call a spade a spade. The trump card is that is all about me. If it is not my culture there is no reason for the story otner than how it affects me. Or could affect me. Both ma ybe true. Or how it might affect me if the circumstances are right and that is alway possible to conjecture about.

So there is no point in telling the story since it does not matter to the dominant culture. The self absorbed Roman culture of the the 21st century. The fear based culture of the modern world that modern media has infected us all with.

Question nothing we do to protect you or the terrorists win.

Would'nt it be sad if that happened?


From: Dogen (Mar 28 2011, at 17:10)

I agree with much of what you wrote, but I think you totally miss a couple of very important points:

1) If you have the option of leaving Japan right now you might be doing the people who can't leave a pretty big favor by leaving. By leaving you put less drain on very scarce resources. To me that seems like a good thing to do, not "chickenshit".

2) It's no great insight to say that media coverage of the current nuclear plant situation is over-heated (small joke). That doesn't mean there aren't real and significant dangers that haven't happened yet. People who believe--like many of us--that nuclear power needs to be a part of our future need to STFU right now. We should NOT be braying (oh dear) on about how Fukushima has been exaggerated. I hope it has. But only time will tell, those poor folks are very far from being out of the woods yet. We lose all credibility when we downplay the possible results of this tragic situation.


From: example (Apr 13 2011, at 22:21)

I'm a bit skeptical of the MITNSE blog. Remember it got started by posting an article entitled "Why I'm not worried about the Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactor" or whatever, that someone else wrote and they decided to 'maintain'. I don't know if the MSM coverage was any good, since I didn't pay much attention to it (why bother?)

The problem is that pretty much everyone working in the Nuclear industry is going to get screwed over if countries cancel reactor projects due to Fukushima. Fewer jobs for existing nuclear engineers, fewer students for professors and so on.

My basic feeling is that while nuclear reactors can probably be made safe in theory, in practice humans are just not going to catch everything. For example, putting a reactor in a geologically active area and not securing it against unlikely but possible events (like 15' tsunamis and 9.0 earthquakes). Chernobyl was a bad design, but Fukushima really wasn't good enough.

Something like pebble bed reactors might be a good idea.


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