Japan Aftermath Demands 'Unrelenting' Reporting

Disaster specialist Irwin Redlener, M.D. says news media play a key role aiding recovery and drawing lessons to better manage future catastrophes.

For journalists, the earthquake, tsunami and ongoing nuclear reactor crisis in Japan pose an extraordinary challenge. How best to cover the profound scale and scope of suffering, of fast-breaking technological developments, of long-term consequences –-whether from mass displacement or from nuclear contamination? In particular, where should we focus attention as the story moves from its first days into a drawn-out human and technological crisis?

A week after the earthquake struck Japan I posed those questions to Irwin Redlener, M.D., founder and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. A pediatrician and children’s advocate who also directs the Children’s Health Fund in Harlem, Redlener organized medical response teams to the 9/11 attacks and worked extensively in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He is the author of "Americans at Risk: Why We are Not Prepared for Megadisasters and What We Can Do" (Knopf). 

You have studied many disasters. In addition to the horrifying scale of the suffering, what is distinctive about Japan's crisis?

The first thing to understand it that every time a major disaster occurs anywhere in the world we rush to label it a wake-up call. In fact, they are not really wake-up calls. We get aroused, we focus our attention, the media is covering it 24/7; we’re awed, we’re distressed, it’s terrible – but then we move on. The news gets to be repetitive, the stories don’t really have a broader meaning; and then it’s off the front pages with an occasional popping back up if something new is going on. 

What we don’t do is take the lessons out of these big disasters and then apply them to make us more prepared for, or more resilient to, future disasters. I call them “snooze alarms” – we just go back to sleep, back to the complacency. 

And this disaster in Japan has, I would almost say, hair-raising relevance to the United States and other nations. As of last Thursday if you had asked me, or any other person who deals in preparedness, which is the most disaster-resilient country in the world, everybody’s first answer would be Japan. They have the economy, the technology, the motivation to focus on it. They have a level of citizen engagement in what to do in the event of tsunamis and earthquakes that is unparalleled. The only close example might be Israel, where there’s a tremendous awareness of terrorism and bombings. Other than that, there’s really no place on earth that has the level of preparedness that Japan did.

Yet over the last days we saw, and continue to see, the unfolding of a disaster that is so relatable to our own experience. 

You’ve described the Japan crisis as uncharted territory: the first complex disaster. What do you mean by that?

So there’s this massive earthquake – among the largest ever recorded. That’s followed by a tsunami, and by several hundred aftershocks, some highly significant. That, in turn, is followed by an emerging humanitarian crisis from the evacuees just from those initial events. Hundreds of thousands of people are now scattered in shelters,  many of them very primitive, living with a phenomenal amount of uncertainty and anxiety.

They’re also grieving: they’re grieving because entire communities are lost, because everything is changed. Almost everybody who is a surviving evacuee has lost somebody – children who have lost parents and especially parents who have lost children. The impact psychologically of that is searing, and they’re not even getting to grieve in a place that is appropriate or comfortable. 

And then on top of all of that is layered the nuclear crisis. This is where we’re starting to get into a territory that’s uncharted. If we had everything other than the nuclear overlay, we would be looking at an extraordinary disaster. But when we put the threat of nuclear meltdown on top of all of this, we get into a different zone. The nuclear crisis as it's emerging has now reached a level at least of Three Mile Island, and what we can see in the near horizon is the possibility of a Chernobyl-type event. 

And this, in turn, is compounded by the messages that the public is getting, via the media - confusing messages from sources in and out of government, in and Japan and the United States,  from a slew of scientists and experts of various stripes.

This raises a very practical question for journalists.  How can reporters – who are not, for the most part, scientists – begin to sort out experts’ authority at a moment when everything is so confusing? 

I’d compare what reporters are faced with to the work of a physician. Most of the day-to-day work of a physician is pretty mundane; unless you are an intensive care or ER doc, it’s rarely that you are confronting a big-time situation where someone is crashing and it’s just you on hand. I’m making an analogy here: to a good journalist who covers this disaster in Japan and, like a doctor confronted with an emergency, has to step up to the plate. This is the big one. This story is where the public truly needs the smart, discerning reporter to do that screening of the sources.

The fact that the reporters aren’t necessarily experts in this field is not a bad thing. The reporters providing a real service to the public are those who take those experts and insist: you said this, he said that, she said something else: how are we going to get to the bottom of this story? You have to be the translator between experts with arcane knowledge about a rapidly developing, dangerous event, and the general public.

What do you think of reporting on the Japan disaster so far?

A lot of reporting has been really quite excellent.  We are getting  quality information in print and in broadcast journalism, some excellent descriptions of what is going on, and some very positive use of experts. And the use of explanatory graphics has been pretty great, I think. 

The problem right now for me is that while the nuclear situation is grave, I am concerned about the percentage of airtime given to those technological developments compared to the humanitarian refugee crisis.  There has been a breathless shift. Even though the nuclear plant crisis has been covered really pretty well I think we’re missing out; we’re missing more of what we need on this horrific human tragedy.

It’s a matter of balance. Again: We have  800,000 refugees who are in horrible conditions. That is a big story, yet it seems to be already marginalized. If we don’t get a meltdown I’m sure we’ll return to the refugees, but it’s going to feel anticlimactic – I can already sense that. Another few hundred thousand people as refugees or evacuees – it’s going to look like old news.

But don’t you think that this potential nuclear meltdown dominates the news because it rouses a special kind of fear?

Certainly. It’s fear – and it’s a new kind of fear. People have gotten accustomed to the idea that we have nuclear power plants everywhere. Here in the U.S. we have 104 functioning nuclear power plants. In France, which gets the vast majority of its energy from nuclear power, reactors are just part of the landscape. Now suddenly we’ve poked a stick in those presumptions. 

In your book, you write at length about the importance of leadership in disaster preparedness and response. When journalists are trying to evaluate leadership in the Japan crisis, what are the things we should be looking at? What constitutes good leadership – either elected, or scientific or professional – at a moment like this?

It’s interesting to compare the response in Japan to the the BP oil spill. In both instances, in these two highly developed, highly technological countries, we’re dealing with massive failure of critical infrastructure. You ask who is in charge of the response, who’s calling the shots, you would have trouble in both instances finding out the answer to that. That worries the hell out of me. And I was down a lot in the Gulf with the oil spill – I snuck onto one of the BP operational centers. It was totally confused. I find that frightening.

One element of the confusion in the Gulf which seems the same now in Japan is the relationship of a private company – in Japan, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO); in the Gulf, BP – to government. TEPCO has been calling the shots until now in that plant. BP was calling the shots entirely. In a disaster it would be appropriate in most people’s minds for government to step in and make sure things are now happening right. Where is somebody I can identify as a strong leader, who is going to say to private companies, OK, you guys screwed this up, so here is what is going to happen now? I think we’re not finding that. In the case of BP, you didn’t get a sense that there was an element of government that was in charge of looking after people’s welfare. That is an extraordinary realization, that didn’t get investigated nearly enough during the BP crisis. Maybe reporters will look at it now in the Japan situation.

As Japan moves into its recovery, where should journalists look for markers, indicators about whether things are going well or badly?

The first issue is: are human needs recognized and being addressed? This is a primal responsibility of government. And not just government – citizens, the whole society.

To the extent that basic human needs are not being met – if a week later, for instance, you are still having trouble in a highly developed, wealthy country getting food and water and medicine for people – I would be, and I am, very worried.

The second thing is: are there ongoing threats? And are they being addressed? Right now, in addition to the nuclear crisis, Japan has more really large aftershocks and the possibility of another tsunami. Have appropriate steps been taken to get people out of harm’s way? This is something where reporters on the ground could play an important role.

The third big thing is the issue of identifying survivors and dealing with psychological trauma on the largest imaginable scale. I’m telling you, these stories of kids being ripped out of their parents’ arms and drawn out to sea – it just doesn’t get any worse than that. So: are there systems in place to do everything humanly possible to find and reunify family members? Are there systems available to support the emotional needs of people? This is in the realm of what’s called psychological first aid, and this is another thing that reporters can be looking for.

I also would be pushing Japanese officials to say what comes next for three-quarters of a million people in makeshift shelters. What is the plan? That is something which needs to be tracked.

Now you have that final layer, the icing on the cake, the potential nuclear meltdown,  which puts everything else under this very complex additional umbrella of uncertainty and fear. What is the consequence of this nuclear threat on the willingness and ability of workers to go and work in Japan in general, and particular in the affected areas?

This is all connected, and all comes back to the need to get accurate information – which is where reporters are absolutely central. 

In the long run, most of the world’s reporters and cameras will leave Japan. It will be left to Japanese journalists to report on the long-term recovery. What is the most important and productive role of local journalism in contributing to long-term recovery and resiliency in the face of a disaster?

Unrelenting monitoring of the recovery process. And by the way, this is going to be of extreme interest in the United States as well. We don’t know how to do recovery. When you say recovery to people in government, they’re thinking about rebuilding buildings that are broken and infrastructure. We need to redefine that. You’re not recovered until people are recovered, which means social systems, housing, those human needs.

We really have to pay attention to lessons from this terrible disaster. Our level of preparedness is so awful in the United States, for instance. I am hoping American journalists will take a much closer, much more sophisticated look at where our own country is in relationship to those large-scale crises.