Once again, our American media outlets, cable, network television and newspapers, have made a huge error in covering the earthquake in Japan. The quake hit Friday morning, Japan time, late at night Thursday in America. The first reports mentioned perhaps 300 dead. As things moved through the weekend, we heard and read mention of 1,000 killed. Now, Monday morning, outlets are saying tens of thousands are probably dead.
Here’s the deal: when you see video of a giant wave pouring over houses, buildings and cars, it is easy to conclude that many, many people were being killed. There wasn’t time to evacuate for most people and a lot of Japanese might not have been able to even if they had notice. So, when there is part of a town wiped out, you know automatically that thousands of people in that area were probably killed. LOOK AT THE VIDEO! Out of each one thousand people, only a very few would be likely to survive. Some of the larger buildings stayed intact as they moved and some were not moved from their foundations. For the rest, death inside was all but certain.
Why is this important? Because the early reports on disasters greatly affect what people and governments around the world prepare to do in response. If the disaster is played down, then the effort at sending help is delayed until the government in charge comes up with a better estimate of the need. Every day counts and, as the days pass, every hour and minute count as a time when people could be helped or rescued from the wreckage.
Through out the day on Friday, the cable news channels were focusing on whether a tsunami might hit the United States. Late in the day, they began to devote more coverage to the events in Japan. We are far too “America-centric” in our news coverage, as though we are the only people who count in the entire world. There is nothing wrong with warning people, but most tsunami events happen close to the source of the underwater earthquake, not four to five thousand miles away across the Pacific ocean.
The America news media is still stuck half way in the old notion of objectivity. We don’t make judgments, we rely on government authorities and others to do so. While damage assessment is a judgment call, it is irresponsible to leave it entirely up to others when there is ample evidence showing massive, widespread destruction. The opposite mistake was made in Haiti, relying too much on early exaggerated government claims. We will never know how many people died just over a year ago in Haiti because the government made its claims and then buried people in mass graves without counting.
Nations around the world rely on news media reports to get their first understandings of disasters. Indeed, the slow response to Hurricane Katrina can be traced in part to the Monday morning reports that New Orleans had “dodged a bullet” when, in fact, it had taken many bullets straight to the heart. If news reports are off base, then the emergency response takes longer to prepare and deploy. This must be changed.
THE TERRYREPORT IS TAKING ACTION
I have long wanted to start a satellite and Internet news channel devoted solely to cover hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural and man made disasters. After this event, the commitment is going to move forward. The channel will mainly be for first responders and those directly affected by a disaster event. For example, it would be made available to cable systems in a given region of the U.S. in the aftermath of a major weather event (it would be available nationally as well, but the focus will be on helping people where it is needed most).
If you would like to assist in this effort in any way, please contact The TerryReport. We will need donations (don’t send anything now) and volunteers, particularly volunteers with fund raising, non-profit experience and anyone with television and news experience in their background. I have been considering this concept for a number of year (I’ve been through a number of hurricanes as a reporter) and I know how to put it together and make it work. If you’d like to help in anyway, please let me know.
Doug Terry, 3.14.11