FUD and Fukushima

Anybody remember the Tohoku earthquake? No? Here’s a hint. Fukushima-Daiichi. Now do you remember?  April 7, 2011. The earthquake struck Japan, and in the subsequent tsunami, upwards of 18,500 people, their towns and livelihoods were literally swept away. Damage from the quake and flooding from the tsunami also wrecked the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear facility, causing the reactors to melt down and creating what is billed as the “worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.”  But nobody died at Fukushima.

So why does the reactor problem get all the press, and the proximate cause, the earthquake, is largely forgotten?

I fear we in the press have to own a lot of the fault. Fukushima is what we in the press call  “click bait.” Like Miley Cyrus, concussions in the NFL and gifs of cute kittens and puppies, “Fukushima” in a headline is going to generate clicks (the new measurement of all things good in journalism) and even catch the attention of old-fashioned readers of “tree-ware.” So we write about it—even when we don’t exactly know what we’re talking about.

Why? Because the problems at Fukushima are scary. They create a situation tailor-made to appeal to readers’ political and social prejudices (and ours) and encourage a lovely food fight over public policy, which we in the press can leverage to generate even more clicks. And it’s much more interesting to our and our readers’ lizard brains than the gloomy pictures of the post-apocalyptic landscape around the Fukushima reactor and the accounts of the grindingly difficult prospect of rebuilding that area.

It also leads to really bad science and to a lot of free-floating Fear, Uncertainly and Doubt..  

Stuart Nathan, the features editor at the U.K. magazine The Engineer has a great column on this press-generated bad science and the scare-mongering around Fukushima. Also a report on some interesting possible solutions to the worst of the facility’s problems. It’s worth the read.