JAPAN | Italian journalist denounces media’s disaster coverage

Posted on July 6, 2011


To Pio D’Emilia, the tidal wave that devastated the northeastern coast of Japan was not the only force that exposed the weakness of man.

The March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake also sparked a metaphorical tidal wave: a “tsunami of information” that swallowed both the foreign and Japanese media and exposed a widespread lack of journalistic integrity.

“The domestic media was slow and not proactive enough in seeking the truth,” says D’Emilia, adding that in the quake’s aftermath, many foreign correspondents were busy peddling “inventions, misrepresentations (and) manipulations.”

According to D’Emilia, a longtime Japan correspondent for Italy’s Sky TG 24 television network, many foreign media reports were filed by people who had little understanding of Japanese culture and often did not even enter the disaster zone.

But their Japanese compatriots did not do any better, D’Emilia says, since they toed the government’s official line or that of Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the devastated Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Some relatively benign and laughable stories are already notorious, including those that claimed Japanese were wearing face masks to guard against radiation, when the masks are commonly used to prevent hay fever symptoms. In another one, a journalist mistook a large white radish, or daikon, for a mutant radioactive carrot.

Yet D’Emilia notes there were more serious aberrations.

One journalist copied an entire article from another foreign newspaper, without verifying the facts. Despite not even visiting the place the story concerned, the reporter embellished the story with emotive descriptions. To D’Emilia’s disgust, the piece went on to win the writer a prestigious award and 5,000 euros in prize money.

According to D’Emilia, the foreign media misrepresented the situation for two reasons. Firstly, many were “parachute journalists” who arrived here knowing nothing about Japan, its culture or terrain. Secondly, many of the local correspondents chose to report indirectly from Osaka or other cities in western Japan. Some even wrote their stories from outside the country.

Unlike those who chose to keep a safe distance, D’Emilia did what he considered the duty of any correspondent: he headed to the disaster zone on day one. Finding the roads blocked, he resorted to flying over the worst-hit areas to the northern city of Akita and driving south from there. He arrived at Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, on the morning of March 13.

From there, he visited many other areas devastated by the tsunami and followed the struggles of the survivors. He was touched by their quiet resilience.

“Italy is also prone to catastrophes, but we are much more emotional–we shout, despair, hold up the bodies of children,” he says. “The dignity of the Japanese is really something.”

At times he put down his camera and helped people search for their missing families.

He later traveled to the eastern coast of Fukushima Prefecture, after the hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, to cover the unfolding nuclear situation.

Wearing only a white coat, goggles and mask, he managed to reach the outer gate of the plant.

“So many journalists said, ‘My company won’t allow me to go within the 20-kilometer zone,’ but that’s rubbish,” he says.

“Just don’t tell them. I didn’t. That’s the kind of situation when a correspondent has to make their own decisions and hope their company supports them.

“I wouldn’t jump into a fire, but I would stand in front of a nuclear plant for two hours, because I know nothing is going to happen,” he says. “I just did what every journalist should do in that kind of situation.”

D’Emilia thinks the Japanese “hack pack” did not do much better, and he faults them for not providing crucial and timely information in its entirety.

“To me, mainstream, traditional journalism has ended, and a new journalism has begun. An enormous role was played by independents, who witnessed the compulsive lying and omissions of the so-called mainstream media,” says D’Emilia.

“The tsunami was a good test to teach us what ‘reporting’ really means: checking facts, being there, distinguishing between opinions and gossip.”

The media has also failed to address the central question that everyone should be asking, he says. Can a nation that has undergone such a tragedy continue pursuing a nuclear future?

“The Japanese don’t show it much, but I am sure they are harboring a lot of suffering and stress inside,” says D’Emilia, who thinks the stress from worrying about radiation is more likely to cause illness than the actual physical effects of being exposed to iodine or cesium. “Living with the fear of an impeding apocalypse is unacceptable: that’s why people should be anti-nuclear today.”


Pio D’Emilia has written a book called “The Nuclear Tsunami: Thirty days that shook Japan,” in Italian. A Japanese version is to follow.

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