On Thursday, March 10, at 10:46 p.m. MST, a magnitude 8.9 earthquake struck off the northeast coast of Honshu island, Japan. The news broke and caught global attention immediately, not only because the event (initially reported as a magnitude 7.9 earthquake and later raised by the U.S. Geological Survey) was one of the strongest earthquakes in history, but because scientists predicted the high probability of a tsunami as a result of the quake. And scientists were right.
Photo from Kyodo News/Associated Press
Here is an Associated Press piece about the tsunami, and nearly all of the footage was captured live as cameras caught the tall, relentless wave roll inland, sweeping everything in its path. The Los Angeles Times, among other sources, reports that the number dead may be 10,000 in Miyagi prefecture alone.
In the wake of the twin natural disasters, Twitter was the source for much information. Mashable reported that Tweet-o-Meter registered 1,200 tweets per minute from Tokyo. I know I personally discovered the catastrophe while checking my Twitter feed, and while Twitter may be great at breaking stories, it is suspect as a credible news source.
Since discovering the disaster on Twitter, I’ve checked searches for key terms in order to see what information people in the ‘Twitterverse” have been passing along to one another. I’ve dedicated little time to watching news reports aside from the first night, and that was because I was curious to see where and how far the tsunami would go. (That night I was tuned into the Al Jazeera English online stream.)
Monitoring Twitter searches for common hashtags like #japan, #jpeq, and #tsunami has helped me monitor the discussion to keep up with current developments. And it was through those searches that I discovered a hashtag which would lead to some uneasiness: #fukushima.
Fukushima prefecture — about 50 miles south of Sendai prefecture, where Sendai Airport was destroyed by a 33-foot high wave — has been popular on Twitter not for its tsunami damage but for consequences of the earthquake. Japan has an earthquake early warning system that alerts citizens seconds before a strong earthquake hits. The system also prompts power companies and railways to shut down in an effort to minimize damage, and that’s exactly what happened at nuclear power plants across Honshu island.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is home to four nuclear reactors, and the earthquake shut down cooling systems for the reactors, resulting in workers scrambling to properly cool the nuclear cores in order to prevent dangerous radiation leaks. As a precaution, the Japanese government issued a 20-kilometer evacuation radius from the plant in order to ensure the safety of nearby residents.
However, this is where it starts to get messy: International news sources like Al Jazeera, BBC, and CNN have all been monitoring the nuclear threat at Fukushima since Saturday morning, when Nuclear Reactor 1 experienced an explosion. Speculation ran rampant in the few hours directly following the explosion, as reporters tried to get more details. Speculation behind the news desk led to speculation behind the computer screen, and Twitter’s new fast-moving search terms were “radiation” and “meltdown,” in my opinion due in no small part to the following Tweets:
There are conflicting reports regarding the state of nuclear emergency in Japan. Radiation levels fluctuate from story to story. Some news sources say partial meltdown is “likely under way.” Some say a meltdown is still only a possibility. The language journalists are choosing is being criticized as fear mongering. Last night, one user confronted CNN head-on with this colorful tweet, which was heavily circulated.
The issue here is not with media companies and the choices they make to stay relevant to their audiences. (People want to hear about Japan, they have to report on it.) The issue here is a lack of clear, focused public communication between Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) and the rest of the world. TEPCO failed to quickly report accurate data regarding radioactivity levels inside and outside of the Fukushima plant, and some thought TEPCO was trying to downplay the gravity of the global nuclear situation. But there is also the fact that much of Honshu island and its infrastructure have been devastated, meaning TEPCO may simply be doing the best it can. Cultural differences in disclosure and emergency management may also be in play.
In crisis situations (not PR crises, but general crises), how much accurate and clear information should audiences expect? What responsibility — if any — does TEPCO have to keep the public well-informed when it is also working to restore electricity to more 250,000 households still without power? Should TEPCO and other Japanese government officials including Prime Minister Naoto Kan be more in control of the messages circulating regarding the details of the nuclear emergency in Japan? Who are the losers in a situation like this — TEPCO, Japanese government officials, Twitter (somehow), outside news sources, the nuclear power industry?