Fiona Fox: Media meltdown over nuclear threat

The UK Science Media Centre’s Director Fiona Fox has published a lengthy blog post summing up the international media’s response to the crisis in Japan.

In the post, she lays out arguments against the suspicion some journalists and editors voiced — namely, that scientists with ties to the nuclear industry have a vested interest in downplaying any threat from the failed reactors.

An excerpt:

A week last Friday, in response to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the Science Media Centre dropped every other story and started issuing comments from experts on earthquakes and tsunamis, warning them to prepare for days of back-to-back interviews. We forewarned our public health experts that the media interest would soon turn to them and planned to line up our trauma experts and psychologists.

Then there were explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Suddenly, this was the only game in town as far as the media was concerned.

By the following Tuesday, there was only one earthquake expert sitting alongside five nuclear scientists at our emergency briefing – and none of the 40 reporters who crammed into the SMC were interested in him. In just a few days, the main story had changed from the actual catastrophe of Japan to the imminent threat of a nuclear ‘apocalypse’, ‘meltdown’ and ‘another Chernobyl’.

Most broadcasters had one or two reporters focusing on the earthquake, compared to five or six talking about the threat from the nuclear plant. The personal stories that usually have me in tears for days after a tragedy like this were comparatively rare, as journalists competed to summon the most alarming language possible to describe the nuclear ‘meltdown’. Terrifying headlines talked of a deadly radiation cloud descending on Tokyo, before drifting across the oceans to menace the United States. …

Even if the damage done to the Fukushima nuclear power plant had delivered the nightmare scenario of ‘Another Chernobyl’ predicted by many in the media, I would still have qualms about the speed with which the pending nuclear ‘catastrophe’ seemed to take over from the actual ‘catastrophe’. But what made this focus more unsettling was that an entirely different story was being told at the SMC.

Continue reading Fiona’s post on the BBC’s CoJo Online