News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

The Seesaw Media Coverage of Japan’s Nuclear Crisis

  • Joseph Leahy
| March 23, 2011

Final Seminar in Three-part Series on Clean Energy and the Media

Listen to a recording of the seminar:


As Japan’s nuclear energy crisis continues to unfold at the Fukushima Daiichi power station, the news media have struggled to sort through confusing, and often conflicting, information about damage to the crippled plant and its threat to public safety. The media’s presentation of this disaster, however, could have lasting effect on the future of nuclear policy at a time when the U.S. seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and its dependence on foreign oil.

“This is an extraordinarily difficult challenge for the media,” said Matthew Bunn, co-director of the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

"We are talking about a very complex technology … that most of the public finds hard to grasp. Second, you’ve got intensely warring ideologues on both sides – intense anti-nuclear people, intense pro-nuclear people – and as a result you’ve got a lot of information floating around … that is just wrong.”

Bunn spoke recently at a seminar, “In the Shadow of the Japan Crisis: The Seesaw Coverage of Nuclear Power,” that was the last in a three-part Clean Energy and the Media series cosponsored by Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center and the Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Even in times of relative calm, said Bunn, media coverage of nuclear energy suffers from pendulum swings of praise and pessimism.

“There is some bouncing back and forth between the ‘gee whiz’ story – you know: here’s a great new nuclear technology that’s going to make everything better … and the ‘oh no’ story: a little bit of tritium has gotten in the water somewhere and that is going to poison us all,” he said.

ABC News science correspondent Ned Potter compared television reporting of the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster to the current crisis in Japan, saying that while television provides less information than print “what does last is the impression, the image.” He noted how the image of the curved cooling towers came to symbolize the dire lessons learned from TMI and speculated which image(s) might similarly emerge from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. To illustrate some of the current American coverage, Potter played a recent ABC News report on the Fukushima nuclear problem.

The seminar’s other featured guest, Matthew L. Wald, national energy reporter for the New York Times and one of the paper’s principal reporters on the Fukushima nuclear disaster, participated via videoconference from Washington D.C. Wald was critical of some of the media coverage of the nuclear crisis, particularly on television and online, as sometimes overly simplified or incorrect, in part because some of the reporters involved are “over their heads” in terms of the technical side of the nuclear disaster. Staff cutbacks in specialty science, energy, and environment reporters in recent years have meant far fewer journalists who are prepared for the technical challenges in a crisis such as this.

“Listening to this I get the feeling that it came from engineers who speak Japanese; it went to engineers who speak engineering English – which isn’t quite English – then to some State Department person who was an English major and then it got translated to a reporter. Along the way it got simplified and in some cases it just became wrong,” said Wald, who has been covering nuclear power for three decades.

Wald also noted that one of the major “weaknesses” in news media coverage is the failure to fit “together the pieces of our readers or our viewers” in terms of comparing the relative risks and benefits of various forms of energy, including the known hazards of coal and oil, compared to nuclear power.

Wald also noted that the coverage too often ignores the economics of nuclear power, and that the reason for building new nuclear power plants “will be money….Anxiety doesn’t stop construction.” Going forward, he said, the longstanding problem of storage of nuclear waste, a big safety issue at the Fukushima plant now, will once again be hotly debated in the US.

Cristine Russell, event moderator and series organizer who is a senior fellow with the Belfer Center’s Environment and Natural Resources Program, later added that mis-characterizations are symptomatic of the 24-hour news cycle, which has accelerated with the recent advent of social media tools such as Twitter.

“To some degree we had too much communication and not enough information,” said Russell, who currently writes for the The Atlanticand reported in-depth on the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster when it occurred.

Russell noted the irony to be found in the grave environmental hazards posed by a so-called “green” technology.

“Because nuclear power does not release greenhouse gases, it has been seen as clean in terms of the climate. Now at the moment it’s an ironic term, because it doesn’t sound so clean in terms of radiation release. So it’s clean relative to what?” she said.

No one knows today exactly what the magnitude of the catastrophe unfolding at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant will turn out to be in the weeks and months ahead. Nonetheless, how the media tell the story of the crisis will shape the future of the nuclear power industry for decades to come.

“I think we’ve got to wait and see how the dust settles and how the dust is perceived to have settled on Fukushima,” said Wald.

Earlier seminars in the energy series focused on wind energy (story and audio here) and electric cars (here) .

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Leahy, Joseph. “The Seesaw Media Coverage of Japan’s Nuclear Crisis.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 23, 2011.

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