Affairs

Media

Japan focus: get the real story— Tokyo

Preface

Who to trust?

Media Coverage, Tsunami

18 March 2011

It was hard to get a gauge on who to trust and where to find the most accurate and relevant information in Tokyo yesterday as US networks started to over-editorialise their bulletins (cue Anderson Cooper), the BBC started allowing far too much viewer comment to clutter their live coverage and various embassies issued a jumble of advisories that didn’t seem to stack up.

While some news organisations headed west to ensure their correspondents would be safe from shifting winds and the radiation they might carry, too many were relying on readers, viewers and listeners to supplement their content. At a time when people all over Japan were looking for clarity, social network advocates in newsrooms far, far away were filling up too much screen and airtime with banal comments, only adding to the haze.

As I prepared for a morning of meetings in central Tokyo I scanned a variety of networks and websites before heading out, and was quickly frustrated by the equal billing given to random comments and real reporting from journalists I trust. I’m not quite sure what it does for a news brand when they give as much airtime to someone commenting about the availability of doughnuts (in a part of the country not even affected) and a BBC update on evacuation information from the Foreign Office. For sure this is a discussion for another day but at a time when so many people are looking for a trusted source it doesn’t help to expand the size of the chorus. By late morning the picture became more confusing as the US said they were laying on planes to evacuate some nationals (most families of embassy staff) and the British looked set to do the same.

The Australians were also issuing menacing warnings, but said they weren’t related to the radiation but had more to do with the shaky state of the infrastructure. Oddly my own embassy (Canada) was being the most level-headed and saying nothing about the need to leave Tokyo, sticking close to what the Japanese government was advising for its own citizens.

At this point I decided to contact my colleague Atsushi, who was at Narita, to get his take on things. An exodus? Massive queues? “It all seems pretty normal here,” he explained. “In fact, my flight to London is quite empty.” So much for the need to be chartering planes for worried Europeans and Americans.

I spent the morning in meetings, had a leisurely lunch with my colleague Noriko, bought presents for friends in Italy and Sweden and then jumped in the car to Haneda. Having a more central location than Narita, I thought that the crowds might have been here rather than out in Chiba. As we pulled up curbside there was only one other cab that was loading up rather than dropping off, and on the departures concourse it seemed like any normal Thursday. On board my Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong there were plenty of empty seats amidst the odd tearful passenger. As the crew went through their pre-flight safety checks and I prepared to turn off my phone I received an email from the US state department. The diplomat in question wanted to know if I thought it was safe to visit Japan? Mixed messages indeed.

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