Misinformation Clouds Much Japan Coverage

International media’s output enters the “Journalistic Hall of Shame”

Andrew Woolner’s Yokohama residence was left without power shortly after the recent major earthquake struck Japan. But his laptop and cell phone still had juice, and he managed to get online and read about what had happened.

“We’re used to getting earthquakes—we live in Japan,” he said when we spoke earlier this week.

He knew something was different this time, though, because his elderly neighbors seemed shaken by the intensity of the quake—even though the epicenter was far from Yokohama.

“But there was no panic,” he said of people in his neighborhood.

Woolner looked to traditional media and his Twitter stream to get a sense of the severity of the quake, and the resulting damage.

“I went to the BBC and I started watching the coverage there, and as it progressed I was shocked because I always thought the BBC was a fairly straightforward news organization—but it was starting to not match what I could see was going on,” said Woolner, a thirty-five-year-old theatre artist born in Canada. He moved to Japan close to eight years ago.

“At the same time, I was on Twitter—and this is the first time Twitter has ever proved itself to be useful to me—and all my friends in Tokyo and the environs were tweeting in and we were starting to piece together what had happened,” he said. “At that point there was really no speculation; it was just people reporting what had happened to them.”

That was two weeks ago. As time passed, Woolner said the gap between the reality he and others in Japan were experiencing and what international media was reporting seem to widen. He’s not alone in that assessment.

As of today, the biggest media error in terms of virality is Fox News’s misidentification of a Tokyo nightclub as a power plant. That’s good for a chuckle, but it also speaks to a larger complaint that the media is spreading misinformation about the situation at Japan’s nuclear facilities. For an extreme example of ignorance, watch Nancy Grace spread irrational fear in the face of expert analysis (it begins around the forty second mark):

No, Grace is not a journalist. But she isn’t alone in stoking fears and spreading misinformation. Writing for TechCrunch, Jon Evans, a journalist and programmer I know personally, said the problem is a lack of understanding on the part of journalists:

… the basic problem is that most journalists simply don’t have a clue when it comes to science and engineering. They don’t understand what they’re writing about; they don’t know which questions to ask; they don’t understand that science, unlike the arts, is ultimately about provability and falsifiability, not interpretation and opinion; they don’t know when government advice is reasonable and when it’s terrified CYA boilerplate; and they don’t know when to call bullshit on whatever source they have dredged up to provide “balance,” which they worship beyond all explanation.

Writing for Scientific American, David Ropeik made similar points about the poor quality of reporting about radiation, as did Andrew C. Revkin in The New York Times. Fiona Fox, director of the U.K.’s Science Media Centre, wrote a piece for the BBC College of Journalism Blog suggesting the that the views of nuclear experts “were disregarded by sections of the media was that they are nuclear experts and therefore seen to be ‘pro’ nuclear, with a vested interest in playing down the threat.”

Woolner made the point that international media had trouble gathering detailed information in the first few days after the quake. “It was the kind of speculation you get on the twenty-four news networks when the camera is pointed at something and they feel they have to talk,” he said.

As the days passed after the quake, friends back in North America—people consuming those same reports and others much worse—began sending Woolner panicked messages pleading with him to get out of Japan as soon as possible. Radiation levels were akin to Chernobyl, they told him. The food supply is unsafe. People are panicking in the streets. Come home now!

“I started looking at stuff that they were reading, because they started to send me articles, and I clicked through to see stuff that was absolutely untrue,” he said. “Not even a misunderstanding—it was just things that were untrue.”

Woolner decided to document what was going on. He wanted to collect the inaccurate and sensationalistic reports, and enable other people to join in. He set up a wiki and called it the Journalist Wall of Shame. He told his followers on Twitter. They shared the link. You can see where this is going: that wiki today has close to 200 entries. Woolner is personally responsible for “ten or fewer” submissions.

“Honestly, I expected this to be something that me and maybe like fifty people who are followers, or followers of followers, on Twitter would do and it would be a pretty small thing and in the end I’d maybe make a little theatre piece about it,” he said. “It’s kind of taken me by surprise.”

The examples of media error come from the U.S., U.K., France, Canada, Germany, Brazil, and Spain, among other countries. These are raw, unvetted submissions. Some identify clear factual errors, while others take issue with tone, make accusations of sensationalism, or allege anti-Japanese ignorance. Not all are valid, and many are debatable. But at least they provoke critical thinking.

Woolner believes most contributors are expats living in Japan, or people who previously lived in Japan. When we spoke, he was planning to recruit a group of editors to vet submissions and help organize the material.

“My original intention was to leave it as a wiki and, in the same way Wikipedia works because you have so many people editing, you end up with a decent product,” he said. “I’m trying to put together a team of editors to try and go through [the submission] checking to see if they really deserve to be there, and posting them on a more viewer-friendly page.”

His experiment demonstrates a desire on the part of citizens to engage in fact checking, and to find ways to express their frustration with subpar reporting. They want to be heard. If a rudimentary wiki can attract a decent level of participation, then imagine what could be achieved with a truly collaborative debunking service?

“I think a lot of people would like to extend this beyond the Japan quake coverage,” Woolner said. “… It went further than I thought, and I’ll do my best to see it through to the end and see if we can make some kind of difference somewhere.”

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star. Tags: , , , , ,