With a mission to provide the press and the public with high-quality scientific information and sources, the Science Media Centers in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan have become influential, but controversial players in the world of journalism. While some reporters find them helpful, others believe they are biased toward government and industry scientists.
This three-part series will examine the role that the original center plays in the UK, the performance of the centers during the Fukushima nuclear crisis, and the proposal to launch a Science Media Center in the US. For each installment, two writers were asked to submit opening statements replying to the question in the headline. They exchanged those statements and wrote short replies.
In Part 2, Susannah Eliott and Peter Griffin, the directors of the SMC in Australia and New Zealand, respectively, and Kate Kelland, Reuters’ Health and Science Correspondent for Europe, Middle East and Africa, respond to the question: “How did the SMCs perform during the Fukushima nuclear crisis?” Part 1 is available here, and Part 3 will be posted on Friday.
Susannah Eliott, opening statement:
When the Tohoku earthquake rocked Japan in March 2011, the New Zealand Science Media Centre was already in disaster mode—three weeks earlier a large earthquake had struck Christchurch, claiming 185 lives.
The Japanese disaster was on a different scale entirely. It was immediately clear from news footage that thousands of people had been killed in the tsunami that surged ashore as a result of the earthquake. But in the wake of the disaster, the media’s attention quickly turned to the precarious situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Already fielding calls from journalists looking for experts on all aspects of the natural disaster, the SMCs were now bombarded with requests for nuclear experts who could outline what might happen if Fukushima’s reactor cores went into meltdown.
Sadly, SMCs are at their best during global disasters. Though they are independent grassroots organizations, all SMCs were set up to cut through opinion and focus on scientific evidence during times of crisis and controversy. A charter of independence that all SMCs have agreed to ensures that they are all independent of any one organization or agenda, and it enables them to collaborate on big, messy stories like Fukushima.
Staff at the newly opened Science Media Centre of Japan in Tokyo scrambled out from under their desks to gather and translate commentary and updates from shell-shocked Japanese scientists and feed them out through a Twitter stream that soon attracted 15,000 followers. Meanwhile, the SMCs in Britain, Canada, Australia and NZ, all in different time zones, were in overdrive, looking for scientists with appropriate nuclear expertise who could provide much needed context and help journalists work around the clock on an issue that was changing by the hour.
Government and industry-employed researchers in most countries were unable to speak openly about the situation in Japan, limiting the pool of available experts and amplifying the need for dispassionate and genuinely expert commentary. This was not the time for debate between ‘anti’ and ‘pro’ nuclear campaigners. Debate at a later stage would be needed, but we felt it was inappropriate while people were anxious about their immediate safety and desperately needed the facts.
Media coverage of Fukushima immediately took on a hysterical tone as speculation mounted that a Chernobyl-style meltdown was likely. With the area around Fukushima evacuated and contaminated water from the plants being flushed out to sea, it looked like the classic manmade crisis on the verge of full-fledged disaster. The Tokyo Electric Power Co. did no one any favors in its handling and communication of the crisis.
The situation was exacerbated when the plant’s status was upgraded from five to seven on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). This inappropriately put the event on a par with Chernobyl, with all its dreadful connotations. Although it was technically on the same scale as Chernobyl, the Fukushima disaster released a fraction of the fissile material.
Throughout all of this, the scientific community, aided by the SMCs, provided a voice of reason. Through dozens of “rapid reactions” featuring scientists from all over the world, online and physical briefings, backgrounders on radiation and Q&As answering journalists’ technical questions, they started cutting through the hysteria.
Scientists quoted by the SMCs were accused by some of downplaying the situation at Fukushima, but time and numerous peer reviewed studies have shown that these experts provided a good steer on the science, doing the best they could with limited information and a lot of uncertainty.