News | McGill professors fight sensationalizing of Japan disaster

Slow response, insufficient resources blamed for misrepresentations in Western media

Professors at McGill and Concordia are working to translate Japanese media coverage of the recent disaster in Japan to supplement major gaps they seenin mainstream Western media coverage.

They believe that Western reporting on Japan’s triple disaster – earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident – was crippled by a lack of preparedness and journalistic resources in Japan. The consequences of which have been a reporting style from some media outlets which sensationalizes and generalizes the Japanese experience.

“Part of the initial problem was that they wanted to report on this event but they didn’t have anyone who could speak Japanese, so then they start, you know, madly scrambling around looking for people and they picked really strange people,” said Thomas Lamarre, a professor in McGill’s department of East Asian Studies.

“It seemed like their lack of ability to get anyone to speak helped shape the kinds of things they would say subsequently,” he added.

The idea of the Japanese as stoic, or having samurai-like qualities, surfaced early in stories such as ABC’s “Nuclear samurai recalls meltdown struggle” or the Melbourne Herald Sun’s “Japan nuclear crisis: Atomic samurai not afraid to die.”

“Their experience is being generalized in two ways: the emphasis on their Japanese-ness – going much further with the samurai cliches than the more subdued Japanese press has – and a hesitance to interrupt the heroic narrative,” said Matthew Penney an associate professor at Concordia specializing in Japanese history.

Reducing the Japanese experience to cliches overshadows important issues and trivializes the significance of the individual’s experience, explained Lamarre.

“It gives you this huge distance, this kind of mastery of knowledge. It objectifies people, it takes real courage and transforms it into national narrative,” he said.

“Obviously it portrays this really kind of simple picture of what the Japanese are like that is easy to digest for foreigners, like ‘Oh, all Japanese are stoic, so this is how they are going to deal with things,” he added.

Striking a balance between accessibility and accuracy is a long-standing battle in journalism.

Ian MacDougall, a Canadian freelance journalist in Japan, said it’s difficult for journalists to not simplify their coverage.

“Television, in particular, is always up against the attention span of its audience. If that audience has a broken leg in its understanding of Japan, you need to give them crutches. Newspapers can do more, but there are only so many column inches available,” he wrote in an email to The Daily.

MacDougall also pointed to financial constraints placed on news bureaus.

“Ideally, you would have a large number of experienced full-time reporters and a network of stringers, all who are fluent in Japanese and well-connected in the community. You would also have a desk staff back home that had the wit, the experience, and the time to background themselves on the area,” said MacDougall. “That never happens, of course; you go with what you have, and you react as best you can to what is coming across the desk.”

Stephen Northfield, the foreign editor for the Globe and Mail, acknowledged the dangers of gross generalizations, but maintained that contextualizing a country’s unique social or political contexts is one of the great insights that foreign correspondents can provide their readership.

“I would agree with the criticism that if people drop the idea that Japanese people are stoic people culturally and so nobody is going to be showing any emotion or any sort of concern about this and that. If anybody made a sort of blanket statement that’s obviously not true,” said Northfield.

“I think if people said that generally speaking there is a political context of stoicism, and I think that it is probably accurate that politically there is a tendency for them to try and present the face of calm and assurance that we saw,” he added

Most recently, the political and social response concerning the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant has dominated Western media at the expense of much of the humanitarian context.

“The media outside Japan has been overemphasizing the nuclear accident,” said Penney. “Coverage from some corners has been seeking to contradict Japanese government and TEPCO accounts, not to help resolve the problem.”

MacDougall agreed that the nuclear accident has eclipsed most other news from Japan.

“A few things have thus got lost in the shuffle…for example some of the good news, such as how quickly road, rail, and air links are being restored,” he said.

“The effect has been a lot of sensationalized fear-mongering.”