A look at Western vs. Japanese Media

8 Apr

With articles being released in the Japan Times with the title of “Be objective, not sensationalist, foreign media told” [1], I can safety say that I’m not the only skeptic of Western news.

Being in Japan during the earthquake has revealed much of what I thought was true before I left. The news being reported by western media outlets was quite ridiculous, and it truly was a shame that it focused so much on a highly improbable disaster at a nuclear power-plant and not about a disaster that has killed more than 18,000 people [2] on the North-East coast of Honshu. I have met people from those areas who were evacuated, had some of their friends and acquaintances die in the incident, and they were also upset of the news’ choice of focus. When I was here and was looking for an objective analysis of the situation I went to blogs, reddit, and other sources so that people would be criticizing the news as it was reported, and would provide sources for all of their information.

Sure I can criticize how bad the news is quite easily, but I would like to point out two faults with it that can easily be fixed. First, if the news is reporting anything and is extrapolating conclusions or summarizing information from other sources it should be 100% required to source their information. This is a basic habit and it is a good one at that – it puts the information in the viewer’s hand so that they can objectively criticize it. If you want to look at a good case study at why this is necessary I would suggest checking out Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science or just read his blog. Here’s a great talk he did at Pop Tech (highly suggest watching it – worth the 20 minutes):

Secondly, I think that the format of traditional news is flawed. It calls for an allocated time (in the case of TV) or article space (in the terms of newspapers) to be filled. Which inherently puts a lot of pressure on the people who are responsible for filling up these spaces to make it as long and exciting as possible. I’m a firm believer that many of the issues in the world are often a case of situational deficiencies – that is if you are to analyze the pressures affecting the individuals who are doing something wrong – it will likely reveal why they are behaving in a particular way. These principles are usually the basis for many behavioral economics studies (a good author for is Dan Ariely – I still need to read his latest book but his first book Predictably Irrational was great) – here’s a talk he gave at TED (unrelated to this post but interesting look at behaviour):

So looking at traditional news outlets – what outlines their success: profits – since they are corporations. Most news outlets get their profits from subscriber revenue or advertising revenue. The more people who subscribe, the more you can charge for advertisements. How do you keep subscribers and viewers – you must make the news interesting and exciting. How do you make news interesting and exciting…well you get the point. With many different media companies competing with each-other they try to out-do one another to keep their viewers. I can assure you that they are analyzing their viewership statistics to see what sticks and what does not – and sadly what usually sticks are the exciting and sensationalist headlines. News sources are not masters at relaying objective information for it is not in their best interest to do so. They are masters of increasing their viewer-ship through producing entertaining news to increase their profits. It’s hard not to be manipulated by a well-thought out exciting headline – hell we all learn the “upside down” pyramid style of news-paper article writing in elementary school.

Here are some places where I got my news for the Japanese Tsunami and situation at Fukushima and a quick comparison of what we saw in the Western Media Outlets around the same time:


Good Sources and my conclusion from them:

  • http://xkcd.com/radiation/ – info-graphic that was done in part with a nuclear physicist and cites all of its information from official sources. Helps show how little radiation is currently being released in perspective of what is actually harmful. (yes, XKCD was more objective than any other news source I could find)
  • http://www.mext.go.jp/english/radioactivity_level/detail/1303986.htm – objective measures for every prefecture in Japan on radiation levels in the atmosphere and tap-water.

By looking at these sources, I can feel safe and not feel like anything is really THAT bad.


  • Cover of the Daily Mail (UK’s largest publication) – http://i.imgur.com/GATW9.png
  • Fox news and Daily Sunday – http://imgur.com/4AgZe
  • There are many other examples of which I don’t have pictures of – but I was told by my family and friends back home what was being reported.

If I was only to look at this news I would have left the country in a heart-beat.

There is another great article on this topic done by the JapaneseLife.org which shows the largest Japanese publication with the headline “Containment Vessel failure unlikely” while a western news outlet had the title: “GET OUT OF TOKYO NOW” the same day…

So what can we do? By understanding the behavior of organizations through the pressures that influence them we can use these pressures to help manipulate how they operate. We can stop subscribing to shitty newspapers and use free online sources that provide a more objective analysis. TV is a little harder since viewer-ship is usually calculated using Nielsen survey statistics, which are usually “sample” volunteers who carry around devices with them which pick up sound-waves emitted from radio and TV shows. This data is then uploaded to Nielsen each night. Therefore, most of the viewer-ship data we see is just a small sample size – so the only way we can help influence these is by volunteering ourselves and/or trying to influence those who are already volunteering.

I’m in Tokyo now, we had another big earth-quake last night – but it was not nearly as close as the last big one (7.1 at the epicenter) and there was no tsunami. There are no food shortages here, rolling blackouts are not affecting my area in Tokyo, and people and life is quite normal in this area. If you want I’d suggest donating to relief efforts in the North. If you’re a big grooveshark user just buy a year subscription they are donating 100% of these revenues to the Red Cross and you get a year of Grooveshark! Or just donate directly to Red Cross or any other organization that is supporting the effort.


I’m heading to shinjuku park!



Here are some more examples of the over-sensationalized news:

  • RT – “are we looking at an apocolype?” – “well, this is chernobyl on steroids…”
  • CNN – “Mass Exodus from Tokyo” … really?
  • ABC – “I think we’re extremely close now to the point of no return…” – “…a full scale Chernobyl”
  • CBC – radioactive fallout – “Cause for alarm here [in Canada]” – ignore everything after about 1:48 since a girl cuts in with her own feared analysis
  • The Globe and Mail – “The health threat posed by the continuing nuclear catastrophe in Japan is starting to look less like Three Mile Island and more like Chernobyl.”

I’m sure there are more – feel free to comment with more examples if you know of any!




6 Responses to “A look at Western vs. Japanese Media”

  1. owwls April 8, 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    Thanks for the link.

    I do want to say, though, that the most sensational outlets (in America, anyway) are the TV news crews. Newspapers may overstep their boundaries, but they are also careful to hedge the line so they don’t annoy their subscribers. They will often respond to letters from the public fairly if they get them, but the point is, newspapers are usually local, and they respond to local complaints.

    But television news, with international events, is always just some person talking in a studio over pictures taken far away. So you have a clueless person talking over pictures they aren’t taking, with the awareness that the viewer is going to change the channel the minute he gets bored. So there is literally pressure every second to be exciting.

    I always suggest that people take TV news with a grain of salt, and that they go and complain when reporters or talking heads start sensationalizing. Switching to free online news is a good temporary solution, but those reports have to come from somewhere.

    Thoughtful post!

    • brandonmat April 8, 2011 at 5:14 pm #

      I would have to agree with you as well. However, I would still say similar pressures exist in print although they are not as imminent in nature. Thanks for the comment – I enjoyed your initial post!

  2. smithz55 April 8, 2011 at 11:19 pm #

    While I would agree that Western media is not necessarily the greatest form of media to be following, I cannot really agree with your argument based on the evidence you have provided.
    Firstly, you have used Fox news and the Daily Mail as two of your primary sources for western media. Any competent westerner knows that both of these are not necessarily the best place to go for well written/covered news. The Daily Mail is essentially a tabloid (if im not mistaken home to the infamous page 3), while fox news is…well…Fox news. While those two news outlets may have provided sensationalist headlines other news outlets such as the BBC, CBC, and the Globe and Mail reported on a variety of stories from Japan and, in my mind, did a fairly good job at accurately portraying the situation there.
    At the same time while you look at how Japanese media covers the stories, you have to ask yourself…what else would they do? The media is an amazing tool that can be used to help control or manipulate the masses. I am not saying that the Japanese media attempted to do this, but I am suggesting that you at least consider the possibility that the Japanese media may have downplayed the situation. It would be in the best interest of the Japan for the media to have downplayed the nuclear situation, as to avoid panic. It also makes sense for the Japanese media to report positively on the tsunami and the aftermath, to provide a sense of hope and that everything is going to be okay.
    I think it is important that we look at media through and objective lens, but when doing so you have to look at both sides. It is easy to criticize the West, but at the same time there are two sides to every story, as well as exceptions to the rule. With the recent oppourtunity of being able to watch al-jazeera in the west now I think we are taking a step forward in the media available to westerners.
    Also, when you talk of journalists needing to source their information so that the readers can then investiage the source themselves and make an educated analysis, you must remember that this is journalism, not academia. Many journalists do in fact remark on who or what their source was within the article.

    • brandonmat April 9, 2011 at 5:37 pm #

      Great points and I’d have to agree that maybe I did not provide enough evidence and just picked the 2 most convenient ones. I am working now on updating it with a lot more examples. This was just laziness on my part and thanks for pointing it out.

      I disagree with your last point that they should not be required to source information because it’s not academia. Some journalists do say things such as “according to a study done by XYZ this was concluded” – however, I think they should be required to link to the exact study so that if a viewer wants to, they can scrutinize the article and not just take the summary by a journalist prima facia. I don’t think this is too much to ask – because if they have the information available it would be a simple citation taking no more than a minute. This will help keep journalists accountable for their conclusions and will help avoid many issues that have arisen in the past – mostly relating to scientific journalism. The over-sensationalism of the news in the case of Fukushima is having negative effects on Japan – from people fleeing the country to unwarranted food-export fears.

      Thanks again for the comment, and I will admit that not all of the news was bad – and that I may have been too general in my initial analysis. The effects of the bad reporting, though, was far-reaching enough to cause a deterrent from the true disaster in the North, and caused people to flee the country.

  3. Skeptic June 6, 2013 at 11:20 am #

    The Fukushima catastrophe is worse than Chernobyl. You got it wrong. You got it wrong because you wanted to believe Japanese officials who actively downplayed the catastrophe for various reasons including national pride. Three nuclear facilities blew up, there were three nuclear meltdowns. Japanese officials covered that up early on. About 8 months late they came clean and said meltdowns occurred. Now there are sporadic reports of increasing number of cancer patients around Fukushima. It’s better to be safe than sorry. It’s better to swallow hard truths than cover them up.

    • owwls June 6, 2013 at 11:25 am #

      Ill follow you here, too: A WHO report cites absolutely no injuries and a very minimal level of radiation exposure even to those working in the plant when the crisis occurred. Meanwhile 1400 coal miners were killed in China.

      When you say “worse than Chernobyl,” can you say how, exactly? Or are you just empty-handed lay fearmongering?

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