Ruminations on Citizen Journalism and Media Bias

By Michael Gakuran | | Japan | 32 Comments |

This past week has been truly life-changing. Japan has suffered at the hands of one of the strongest earthquakes the world has ever seen, endured colossal damage from a towering tsunami and fought bravely against a troubled nuclear reactor. Thousands of people are still missing and many more homeless. For me however, living safely in the arms of central Japan, I’ve only been able to sit and watch from afar in horror. My struggle has been not from the direct effects of the disaster, but over the spread of information in the media.

On March 11th at 2.46pm, just as the office was settling down after a satisfying lunch, the 6 story building I work in began to quiver. Gradually the shaking became strong enough to cause people to stop and look around, wide-eyed, but after a few minutes it subsided and everyone went back to their regular work. Twitter, however, was buzzing. My friends in Tokyo were tweeting in shock – the quake had been huge. In Tokyo!? We had felt it here in Nagoya too!

Soon, the first reports came in. With no television or radio in the office, I had to rely on the internet for updates. People set up a camera pointing at a television set and began live streaming the news. Amateur pictures of fires taken with phone cameras began to leak out. And then the tsunami warnings came. The quake had stuck off the east coast of Japan near Sendai and there were but minutes to spare before the waves hit land. My co-workers tapped away on their computers, oblivious to the images of destruction unfolding before my eyes on the tiny screen. The land was turning black as seawater rushed in, crumpling burning houses and swallowing cars.

I left work as soon as I could and rushed home to put the television on. Report after report was pouring in on the worsening situation and Twitter was alive with new, informed people spreading all sorts of media. I decided to start collecting it together – at the very least it might prove helpful for people looking for information on the quake, I thought. Before long it was the early hours of the morning and my article several pages in length, but the assault of information was not stopping. The Japanese news channels had followed suit and set up live streams online and several other blogs had begun disaster information pages. A way to check the phone number of friends and relatives, a page showing all recent earthquakes, basic survival information and places to donate.

The situation continued deteriorating over the following days, particularly at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The foreign press was scrambling for anything they could get, plastering the headlines with emotive words and shocking pictures. Fear mongering over the possibility of a repeat Chernobyl was rife as well as doomsaying about nuclear fallout over Tokyo, 200km south of the affected area. Misinformation about the units used to measure radiation levels began to spread, quickly overshadowing the plight of the people in the stricken areas of northern Japan. Even previously respectable newspapers seemed to be gripped by sensationalism and unable to report the basic facts needed to keep people free from worry. Many expats living in Tokyo and other areas left the country or moved further south due to pressure from relatives and embassies.

Something amazing was happening on Twitter though. Those of us in Japan and able to understand Japanese noticed a stark contrast between the relatively calm Japanese media and foreign press. We began translating live press conferences of the Chief Cabinet Secretary and linking to official radiation readings posted by Tokyo Electric Power Company. People with an understanding of nuclear radiation pitched in and started fleshing out our knowledge on the subject and others went into the stricken areas to volunteer at the shelters. A team of citizen journalists had assembled and were disseminating information that was not only factually correct, but balanced and peer-reviewed. A far cry from the exaggerated coverage by many professional journalists and in some cases, reporting that bordered on the unethical.

But that isn’t to suggest that the amateur journalists assembling on Twitter were free from bias. It’s easy to imagine ordinary people being driven by a heightened ego and sense of self-fulfilment, or perhaps a desire to rip down the traditional forms of media. I’m sure my own actions as a blogger are not completely selfless either. I wonder deep down how much of my motivation came from a true sense of altruism (should there exist such a thing) and how much of it from the growing encouragement and acceptance I found in my peers. But somewhere inside, I’d like to think that the terrible situation unfolding helped us all to move beyond personal interest. Perhaps what may have started as conversation about a shocking event flourished into a truly useful service.

The events of the Great Tohoku-Kanto Earthquake are still unfolding as I write. The relief efforts will stretch into the months ahead and it will take a long time to rebuild the damaged areas, but I am positive it can be done. The resolve of people that I have seen around me in the past week has been moving. Many friendships have been formed and I’m sure many more will be made in the weeks to come. My lessons in the power of citizen journalism will continue as I scrutinise the media I consume, but after the hype has died down I hope that the real news will emerge clear and true; that of a strong community spirit and tireless drive to help one another in these times of need.

32 comments on “Ruminations on Citizen Journalism and Media Bias
  1. AndySauer says:

    Great piece. You really are witnessing something phenomenal and unprecedented. In the wake of a such series of devastating disasters, where accurate information can be the difference btw life and death, you are observing from the ground a nascent form of communication in action and being able to measure it up against the more established lines of communication (i.e. the media). Very revealing.

  2. AndySauer says:

    Great piece. You really are witnessing something phenomenal and unprecedented. In the wake of a such series of devastating disasters, where accurate information can be the difference btw life and death, you are observing from the ground a nascent form of communication in action and being able to measure it up against the more established lines of communication (i.e. the media). Very revealing.

  3. Jon L says:

    Great work on the updates and quake information. Twitter is really a new and important source of information now and you have shown that.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I followed the situation both via NHK world and twitter instead of reading/watching French news. I tried to form my own view of the situation through the different sources of information available and that seemed to rely on on-the-spot facts, rather than opinion.
    It’s true that an expressed opinion is biased but if it’s stated on the basis of facts, it’s better.
    And you were one of the people that gave information to build my own opinion and analysis of the situation.
    Thank you for that and great job beacause you didn’t seem to have too much sleep like Edano ;-).

    • Gakuranman says:

      Haha. For the first night I didn’t get a wink, no! But I can hardly compare to Edano who claims he has only been home once since the quake and catching the odd hour’s sleep in his chair where possible. That’s commitment.

  5. Inksmithy says:

    I have been following you, daniel garcia and mutantfroginc since the second day of the crisis. I was in a rage because the vaunted BBC news channel here in the UK was showing fluff pieces as news about the reactor problems began to occur. You will be pleased to hear that according to one of the stories run at breakfast prime time in the UK reliably informed us that “wine and cat food” are life essentials. I actually shouted at the television at that point and turned to Twitter, where as you said, great things were happening.
    One of the people I follow, tv producer @giagia treated that you and daniel were providing news of what was happening.
    From the bottom of my heart, thank you for the attention to detail you guys displayed while live blogging this crisis. You guys are living proof that western commercial and mainstream news reporting has become so puffed up with self importance and greed that it is no longer functional as a reliable source of information. With governments willing to lie to their constituents and the media betraying the trust and responsibility it assumed, it seems it is people like you and the others are left to carry the baton of calm, unbiased factual news reporting. This crisis marked the end of the traditional media’s capacity to observe and report.
    Again, thank you.

    • Gakuranman says:

      Daniel and Roy have been invaluable sources or information and support throughout the event. I’m surprised to hear that the BBC news was disappointing though – I had it down as one of the better professional sources out there…

      Your words are very kind though. Be sure to thank the rest of the people tweeting about the quake too. There are many more deserving than me of praise for their efforts.

  6. uaskinme says:

    Im sooo glad you think it was a good reason.

  7. uaskinme says:

    I didnt stay because of your blog. I stayed because my wife’s family lives near Tokyo as I do

  8. Gakuranman says:

    Some great photos Max!

  9. _niten says:

    You’ve done a great job.

  10. You’ve been one of the important voices on Twitter that helped inform my own decision to stay in Tokyo. Thanks a lot for your tireless work there and on your blog. Also a big thanks to all the other twitterers who kept you informed.

  11. Marco says:

    You’ve been great, I thank you. Marco (@HeyTony)

  12. Leslie Ayre-Jaschke says:

    I have really appreciated the work you have done on your blog and on Twitter. So many great resources, such a great compilation of many perspectives, and a really good example of using our “collective intelligence” (Matt Ridley).

    It’s been especially wonderful to get the benefit of language and cultural translation. I think it’s given those of us looking in from the outside a deeper understanding of what’s going on and how people are truly reacting than if we’d just been watching TV.

    And while it’s probably been rewarding to get recognition for your efforts (as you’ve noted), I doubt that recognition alone would have been enough to keep you doing this day after day if you weren’t called to the work for other reasons. Nice job and thanks so much.

    • Gakuranman says:

      Cheers Leslie. I’m glad that I was able to provide an alternative perspective to the mainstream media. The other guys and Twitter deserve a lot of credit too. They’ve been awesome pointing out my mistakes and keeping my ego in check when it threatened to turn to the dark side. One of the big benefits of collaborative effort!

  13. Jenni Southern says:

    I’m interested to know how everyone else in your office reacted after you felt the earthquake. Did everyone else just go back to work, or were other people checking news websites too? I know that this is hardly a valid comparison, but when we had bad weather in the UK at the beginning of December, the fact that you couldn’t see out of the window for the amount of snow falling was such a big distraction that I don’t think anyone was really concentrating on their work – perhaps on some level we knew that the managers would meet and send us home very soon. I imagine that if a natural disaster of this scale were to hit the UK, we’d all be sent home from work.

    It’s reassuring that a less sensationalised version of the news is more readily available nowadays

    • Gakuranman says:

      Hi Jenni! Long time no speak :).

      People in my office just continued work as usual. The quake over here was nothing more than feeling the building wobble for a few minutes and without a news source there was no way to determine that it was actually the tail-end of the quake off the east coast of Japan.

  14. Someone coined the term ‘crucial media’ the other day. I think you have just summed it up, brilliantly.

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