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.

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