It’s worth remembering, if you look at our coverage three weeks out of this event, that Japanese authorities have counted approximately 12,000 bodies, and I regret to say that number will likely be significantly higher by the time they are done. These bodies are not from the nuclear accident. They’re from the earthquake and tsunami, but the bulk of our coverage is on the nuclear accident.
What about this story has surprised you?
I never thought I’d be covering multiple meltdowns simultaneously or that I would be covering essentially fratricide, where problems at one reactor caused problems at an adjacent reactor. But news is the unpredictable. I admit that at times I get the sense that we’re living in a science fiction movie. At times I get the sense that all of those computer projections—all of those engineering studies about worst cases—are just projections, and now we’re getting a real world data point that is going to mean a lot more going forward.
And I’ve got one other idea to throw in, which is that this could turn out to be a Rorschach test. You look at this inkblot of the Fukushima accident, and we’re going to have people who say, “This shows it’s folly, we should never have split the atom.” We’re going to have people who say, “Look, if this is the worst that can happen, it’s not nearly as bad as some earlier projections.” And we’re going to have people who say, “Yeah, this is bad, there are things they could’ve been done better, but we can learn from this and move on.” The lessons learned will be all across the spectrum.
Did you sleep during the first few days of coverage?
Well, when the explosion of the first reactor happened, it was four in the morning here and our Web editor woke me up, and it’s hard to go back to sleep after something like that. The Web has changed things. The normal operation of the Times is that if you have a good story, it tends to go up on the Web when you have it, and a refined, better-reported, better-edited story tends to appear in the paper the next morning. In this case, there have been times when the newspaper was a snapshot of whatever the Web had at some certain hour in the evening.
Because there wasn’t time to step back and recast it?
Because it was going to keep changing all night anyway.
Editor’s Note: Matt Wald participated in a recent Harvard Kennedy School seminar on “The Seesaw Media Coverage of Japan’s Nuclear Crisis” organized by CJR contributing editor Russell (audio can be found here). The Times also has an excellent backgrounder on the Japan nuclear crisis as well as a searchable archive on its nuclear coverage.