Media disgraced selves in coverage of Japan nuclear plant

(Centennial Fellow) There is not as yet—and may never be—a complete accounting of the human suffering and property losses that befell the people of Japan with the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011.

One thing everyone knows is that a nuclear power plant emergency of historical proportion is on the list. Has it been reported fairly?

This essay is about exaggeration, and the absence of a fair perspective accompanied by useful technical information.

In context with the entire tragic picture, the consequences of events at the six–unit Fukushima nuclear power complex are small. Predictably—this being about things nuclear and radioactive—Fukushima has dominated news coverage and created unwarranted, widespread fear. Citizens all around the world have been badly served once again by press failure that has had little redemption.

Yes, the Japanese are going to lose several billion dollars worth of electric generating capacity, but that will be little more than rounding in comparison to their aggregate property losses and other economic disruption. Almost certainly, no one will ever be able to identify public health effects from radiation releases because, while there could be some, they will be too few and too diffuse for statistical verification.

Heroes. I cannot go forward from this point without pausing to note heroes. The nearly unbelievable calm and cooperation exhibited by the people of Japan make them all heroes. At Fukushima, though, there are several dozen who stand especially tall, men who have braved exposures to high radiation levels while performing emergency procedures intended to protect their fellow citizens. We should all pause and ask our Maker to save them from permanent harm.

Reporting. I don’t claim that fair, informed reporting of a nuclear power plant emergency is easy. However, among results of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 was extensive focus on lessons learned by those in the industry and those regulating it. The news media were all over this, of course. But what about lessons learned by them from their awful reporting? Recall that TMI was further sensationalized on account of occurring just 12 days after release of a thriller movie, The China Syndrome. Despite all the nail–biting and hand–wringing at the time, I have never seen reported a single injury to anyone—plant worker or general public—in the intervening 32 years. More to the point, I have never seen in the press anything resembling a good news report of the spectacular safety record at TMI!

No lessons for the press from Chernobyl either? Unlike either TMI or Fukushima, there was prompt, uncontrolled release of an enormous inventory of radioisotopes. That was 25 years ago, and it is now well known (but, thanks to the underperforming press, not broadly known) that the dire predictions of human and property costs have not been experienced.

Wouldn’t one have to say the media has failed to learn any lessons? Of course one would. But then TMI and Chernobyl are old stories, useful in “the news” today not for factual illustration but only to conjure up bad memories and, thus, stir the pot.

Columnist Ann Coulter’s March 16 column was ironically titled “A Glowing Report on Radiation.” Read it here. Though her résumé shows no technical training, Coulter wrote a clear discourse on recent radiation effects research. This proves that a technically–complicated subject is amenable to solid reporting. It also feeds one’s suspicion that most in the news business are less interested in straight reporting than in sensationalism and—like too many utility executives—in keeping environmental activists happy.

Our household finds Fox News Channel generally more reliable than other televised news sources, and we respect its efforts to air different points of view in its commentaries. However, Fox on Fukushima was worse than useless.

On the early evening news program he hosts, Shepard Smith gave us day–after–day regurgitation of emergency action at Fukushima, reported releases of radioactive material with no authoritative explanation as to consequent health effects, and the like. This got no better when Smith showed up to do his broadcast from Japan, apparently to give viewers the impression that Fox was on the ground giving us the straight skinny from up close. All hat and no cattle.

Coulter appeared March 17 on “The O’Reilly Factor” to discuss her writing about radiation effects. I’ll give Bill O’Reilly and his producer credit for the invitation, but not the content. The trouble was that O’Reilly was hell bent to make sure his guest didn’t come off as knowing more than he about her subject. What Coulter had to say was dismissed as pretty much irrelevant given the oh–so–urgent need to tell the alarming story of Fukushima and, as usual, it ended with O’Reilly shouting louder.

On April 13, The Denver Post carried a report that 0.17 picocurie per liter (pCi/l) of iodine–131 from Fukushima had been found in local water and in the water of other U.S. cities. That happens to be about 16,000 times below the conservative upper limit set by Japanese regulators for consumption by babies, and nearly 50,000 times below the limit for adults. The Post acknowledged that “authorities” considered this concentration harmless, and some useful context was provided.

But, I ask, why did the paper publish 400 words on this subject at all? I think you can bet the farm that no hazardous substance other than radioactivity, at 16,000 times below the standard for protecting babies, would have been reported. Few if any can even be detected at levels that low.

The Post missed a great opportunity to tell the real story in that 0.17 pCi/l, the beyond–astonishing ability science has developed to detect and identify radioisotopes in the environment. For iodine–131, that is the same concentration as one–fifth of an ounce (weight) dispersed in the Mediterranean Sea. Less than one–and–one–half parts per billion trillion.

While this wonderful metrical capability facilitates protecting people against harmful exposure—a blessing—it also opens the door to reports that lead to unwarranted public fear—a curse. We need to demand better from the press.

Environmental writer William Tucker has been a well–informed voice of sanity for decades. In an op–ed titled ”Japan Does Not Face Another Chernobyl” published March 14 in The Wall Street Journal, Tucker trenchantly noted, “With all the death, devastation and disease now threatening tens of thousands in Japan, it is trivializing and almost obscene to spend so much time worrying about damage to a nuclear reactor.”

Events subsequent vindicate striking “almost” from that sentence! It’s obscene, plain and simple.


John Dendahl is a Centennial Institute Fellow specializing in energy policy and mass media. This piece originally appeared at FamilySecurityMatters.org.

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