U.S. Media #fail on Quake, Tsunami, Fukushima Reactor Problems

Like most people, probably, my main reaction to recent events in Japan is horror and sympathy. (I say “most people”, and am pretty confident in that, but there are still the depressing people documented here and here to take passing note of.)

But a secondary reaction, also shared by many, was this: Man, when did the news media in this country get so incredibly crappy? Doc Searls wrote about this at Earthquake turns TV networks into print. Pretty much every US TV news outfit, from CNN on down, came off as horribly inadequate to actually talk about what was going on in an intelligent manner. Instead we got a breathless, poorly informed voiceover. The visuals were compelling, but I could see them online.

It wasn’t just TV that came off as inadequate. Print was bad, too. The earthquake hit at 9:46 p.m. California time, yet the next morning’s LA Times had nothing — literally nothing — on the front page about it. Nor did it have anything on the front page of the little mini news section (called “LATEXTRA”) that the paper began including a while ago. I always assumed the LATEXTRA section is there so that the paper can run last-minute news items, but apparently even that didn’t buy them enough time to deal in any depth with a story like this that hit at 9:46 p.m. Pacific time. There was one (1) item about the quake and tsunami in the paper: Inside the LATEXTRA section was a single brief item noting a few of the initial facts. I can imagine the conundrum the Times’ editors went through: All they had time to do was this embarrassingly minimal mention, which was going to be viewed as completely inadequate, and be completely out of date even before it arrived on readers’ doorsteps. But what was the alternative? To run literally nothing would almost have been more honest, but I guess that would have been even more embarrassing.

Now we’re witnessing the next phase in the ongoing #fail: Coverage of the Fukushima nuclear reactor problems. Breathless “ohmygod, meltdown!” chatter makes for drama and viewership, I guess. But I think conveying actual information would be a nobler thing for the media to aspire to. J.A.Y.S.O.N. turned me onto @arclight’s Twitter feed, which led me to this excellent item: Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors.

Update: Perhaps not so excellent. Per this item at Salon:

Identified as an “MIT research scientist,” Dr. Josef Oehmen wrote the post over the weekend with the title, “Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors.” It was a modified version of an e-mail he sent to family and friends in Japan on Saturday evening, according to the blog where it was originally posted.

Oehmen, it turns out, does work at MIT but has no special expertise in nuclear power. And his key claim — that “there was and will *not* be any significant release of radioactivity from the damaged Japanese reactors” — appears to have already been proven false…

So does Oehmen actually work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology? Yes. But not in the nuclear engineering department. He works at an entity called the Lean Advancement Initiative, which focuses on business management issues. Is he a “research scientist”? Yes. But, again, not in any nuclear field. Oehmen’s research focuses on “risk management” with an eye to helping companies “take entrepreneurial risks.” He writes papers on things like “Human Resource Management in China.”

I e-mailed Oehmen to ask if he stands by the claims in the post. He referred me to the MIT press office, which in turn told me that Oehmen is not doing interviews.

The bottom line is that thanks to the Internet we’re better off than we used to be in information terms. But it’s still pretty shocking to be confronted with how far the old media I used to rely on have eroded. And when it comes to TV news on breaking stories, I’ll be going with the Al Jazeera English live stream in the future.

Update: Hiro pointed out this cool interactive graphic to me. Behold the Slider of Doom: Satellite Photos of Japan, Before and After the Quake and Tsunami. Nice jquery-based UI, dead-tree dudes.

8 Responses to “U.S. Media #fail on Quake, Tsunami, Fukushima Reactor Problems”

  1. shcb Says:

    The article about the reactors was really interesting. Nothing is ever completely safe but we have come so far in limiting damage and death when earthquakes happen. We did some seismic testing at the University of New York Buffalo a few months back. The week before they were testing bridges (wish we could have seen that) the equipment we were using could simulate an earthquake on a full size single lane bridge. By using twin machines the simulated length of the bridge could be increased. They are in the process of building an even larger piece of equipment. While we can’t control nature we can limit the damage she is capable of inflicting. My ceiling passed with flying colors by the way, 1.7 Gs was equivalent to an 8.0 quake, we almost made it to 3 G’s, the machine limit was 3.2.

  2. NorthernLite Says:

    Nuclear power is obviously not my first choice for power generation but I think the fact that these old reactors withstood the 5th largest quake ever as well as a tsunami is actually a pretty good feat.

    Of course if they do end up melting down I’ll be flip-flopping from that statement very quickly :-)

  3. knarlyknight Says:

    I’m guessing these are the best designed and most failsafe nuclear reactors in the world. I’m impressed, I’d have thought they’d be at meltdown by now with what they’ve endured.

    BTW, NL just wondering how many reactors need to meltdown before you flip flop?

    The follow-up question is if they all get restored to functioning but in 10 years another plus 9.0 richter quake hits and they all fail (due to undetectable damage from the 2011 quakes) would you flip flop back?

    Wonder how the construction of California’s nuclear plants compare to Japan’s…

  4. knarlyknight Says:

    JBC, awesome slider of doom update.

  5. knarlyknight Says:

    Looks like about 1 in a hundred buildings survived. I want to know who built them, what with, when and how they were built; and why and at what cost.

  6. NorthernLite Says:

    “BTW, NL just wondering how many reactors need to meltdown before you flip flop?”


    But if it takes one of the most powerful earthquakes in history followed by a tsunami to cause it, I’d be willing to at least flip flop quietly.

  7. knarlyknight Says:

    I said, “I’m guessing these are the best designed and most failsafe nuclear reactors in the world.”

    That was a bad guess.

    The reactors were designed by engineers who could optimize process flows but had no imagination for what disasters might inflict upon their processes. In thinking about the effects of an earthquake / tsunami, could anything be more stupid than storing spent fuel in the upper floor near the reactor and siting the deisel generators where the tidal surge would wipe them out?

    At least there has been a few days to evacuate. Just think if the unimaginable (according to the Bush administration) happened and someone flew airplanes into the reactors, they might have been completely destroyed in mere hours.

  8. shcb Says:

    What is the difference between mechanical engineers and civil engineers? Mechanical engineers build weapons, civil engineers build targets.

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