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to do was this embarrassingly minimal mention, which was going to be viewed as completely inadequate, and be completely out of date even before it arrived on readers’ doorsteps.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.