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The Nuclear Power Plant Accident and Feckless Television
-The importance of informed consent -

Mamoru Ito
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

It has been one year since the great earthquake and the nuclear power plant accident on March 11th, 2011. We still see, however, deep scars from the terrible damage caused by the great tsunamis that struck the Pacific coast in Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima, and Ibaraki Prefectures, and the radioactive contamination from the severe accident at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Recovery and restoration have advanced only a half step. When I visited Ishinomaki and Minamisanriku last month, I never heard the hammering sound of restoration in the afflicted areas that had fallen into ruin all around without any traces by tsunamis breaking the banks and sweeping several kilometers inland.

This unprecedented great disaster compels scientific research as a whole in Japan-including radiology, oceanography, architectonics, and social sciences, as well as sciences and various industries related to earthquakes, tsunamis, and disaster prevention, and nuclear sciences including reactor engineering and the overall industries related to those fields-to do review and self-examination. Media industries, telecommunication industries, media studies, and socio-information studies cannot be an exception either.

Numerous books have been published and examination has been ongoing regarding news coverage on the nuclear accident. These include my book entitled Documentary: How Did Television Report the Nuclear Power Plant Accident? [Dokyumento Terebi wa Genpatsu Jiko wo Dou Tsutaetanoka] (Heibonsha Shinsho), and each of those books renders stern evaluations of the television news coverage of the day.

There were grounds for these rebukes, of course. First, there was a dearth of decisive independent media coverage. While people recently raised the issue that the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology delayed in disclosing the simulation results of SPEEDI, television news never mentioned SPEEDI in the first week after the nuclear accident. In addition, the media did not collect information actively in cooperation with scientists, and they even failed to report the existence of hot spots, places suffering high-level radioactive pollution. This issue had not been known to people before NHK's ETV Special Editions entitled At the Site of the Nuclear Disaster: Dialogue between Sokyu Genyu and Shinobu Yoshioka [Genpatsu Saigai no Chi nite: Taidan Genyu Sokyu vs. Yoshioka Shinobu] (aired on April 3rd) and A Radioactive Pollution Map Created by Networking [Nettowa-ku de Tsukuru Hoshano Osen Chizu] (May 15th). The media also covered little about the confusion and difficulties, such as the interruption of the supply of food and medicine in areas around the nuclear plant, which was experienced by evacuees and residents who were ordered to stay indoors.

Probably intending to avoid panic among residents, television news and other media communicated information uncritically as disclosed piecemeal from the government, Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, and Tokyo Electric Power Company, who attempted to make the accident look as minor as possible. This attitude of the media was in striking contrast to that of the media overseas, such as CNN airing that "We see the possibility of a meltdown" (March 12th) and Reuters reporting "Radiation leaked from Japan's earthquake-crippled nuclear plant on Saturday after a blast blew the roof off" (March 12th). Whereas some media overseas reported exaggerated and incorrect information that only fueled anxiety, the Japanese media, by contrast, covered the news in a way that cannot escape ridicule as being untrustworthy press releases from the old Japanese military government.

The second problem is scientific communication by scientists and specialists appearing in the media. Many specialists who offered commentary on television did not mention, as scientists, measures against the potential worst scenario-assuming explosions in units 2 and 3 of the nuclear plant, which should have been reasonably predictable after the hydrogen explosion of unit 1 on March 12th. What television news did was to only cover and continue airing the empty release from the government that "there is no immediate threat to our health." This issue questions the social responsibility of these scientists, or the responsibility for their omission, as well as the responsibility of the media.

Information science specialist Akihiko Takano describes the media environment in those days as something "under anxiety and a sense of distrust like a patient who wants informed consent but is left uninformed of the condition of her disease." This analogy is on the mark.

What is needed to resolve this situation? Naturally, news organizations are required to put themselves on the line to do self-examination even if it is agonizing to them. A more important and larger issue, however, is to build a social information environment as soon as possible as a task for the entire society so that people monitor the situation while properly networking findings from individual area of specialization, and predictions or countermeasures provided by specialists are transmitted in an appropriate manner via various media, when the modern society that is always at risk of a scientific and technological system crash faces a crisis from a massive accident or disaster. The general public who will receive such information, on the other hand, must also acquire information literacy, which enables them to determine the trustworthiness of information or even to evaluate a number of different opinions or judgments autonomously.

Although ours is regarded as an advanced information society, the government and agencies have hesitated to disclose the information and data required for the public to make judgments, and the media have not fulfilled their responsibility adequately. The information environment as a whole in the Japanese society has come under question. I consider that there are many urgent issues, such as facilitating interdisciplinary communication among specialists, and building networks where information held by the government and scientific data of each area of specialization are transmitted by the media quickly and made available for sharing between the people and the government.

Mamoru Ito
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

[Brief Biography]
Born in 1954.
Specializes in sociology and media studies.
Became a Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University in 2000, after serving as a Professor at Nigata Universiry.
Director, Institute for the Studies of Media and Citizenship, Waseda University, and a member of Science Council of Japan.

Documentary: How Did Television Report the Nuclear Power Plant Accident? [Dokyumento Terebi wa Genpatsu Jiko wo Dou Tsutaetanoka] (Heibonsha Shinsho)
Memory, Violence, and System [Kioku, Boryoku, Sisutemu] (Hosei University Press)
Socio-Information Studies as a Paradigm [Paradaimu to shiteno Shakai Johogaku] (Waseda University Press)
Contributed in numerous books as an editor and author, including Television News Sociology [Terebi Nyusu no Shakaigaku] (Shakaisisosha).