Sunday, March 13, 2011

Japan's earthquake and tsunami: Media issues to think about

All of a sudden, the crisis in Libya has been knocked off the nightly television news.

The media has zoomed in on Japan where the twin perils of a massive earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan's Honshu island on Friday afternoon are making headline news around the globe.

The killer waves that resulted in Japan's pain are possibly the most televised tsunami in history; the Boxing Day tsunami was filmed to a lesser degree than the footage available on YouTube that shows the moment the tsunami flooded Japanese coastal areas.

Media watchers familiar with the Boxing Day tsunami would recognise several parallels in the way the media is covering the story in Japan. Some points worth noting:

1. The scale of the disaster will be more apparent from aerial surveys and satellite images. The media is likely to use before/after satellite images of Japan's eastern coastline to show the extent of the devastation. Stories are also likely to touch on how the post-tsunami coastline has changed.

2. Agricultural experts may talk about how crop growth will be affected as a result of saltwater leeching into the soil. The high saline content makes the soil unsuitable for planting food crops and this is a story the media may explore. This was experienced by farmers in Sumatra.

3. It is only a matter of time before journalists address whether the ocean's catch is safe for consumption. In the wake of the Boxing Day tsunami, some seafood lovers shunned Sri Lankan mud crabs and other seafood as they feared the crustaceans may have eaten corpses washed into the sea. With seafood forming a large part of the Japanese diet, this topic could surface in the media soon.

4. The psychological impact of the disaster is a ticking time bomb that suicide statistics in coming months may reflect. Disaster relief agencies deployed for the Boxing Day tsunami recognised that survivors are not the only ones vulnerable to post-traumatic stresses triggered by a natural disaster. First responders, care givers and even journalists who witness the tsunami's aftermath can likewise carry emotional scars from their experience in and around the disaster zone.

5. Japanese authorities will have to impose some form of air traffic control in the airspace around the disaster zone. Free wheeling media choppers may have given the world a firsthand look at the tsunami, but uncontrolled and unregulated use of airspace is a danger to flight safety. In Sumatra, Indonesian authorities worked with the Singapore Armed Forces to introduce air lanes off Meulaboh that replaced the see-and-be-seen flight profiles.

6. Watch your local bookstore. Instant books and special edition magazines on the tsunami will soon appear, as was the case for the Boxing Day tsunami when publishers produced quick turnaround books packed with pictures of the disaster.

7. The rapid change of media attention underscores the fragility of the so-called media offensives and agenda-based journalism. Newsmakers who can weather media attention for two weeks' or so will outlast the attention span of media agencies. Singaporean actors embroiled in extra marital affairs have learned this. So too have repressive regimes around the globe. Case in point: We hardly hear about the situation in Bahrain anymore. Stories on Myanmar, for example, pop up every now and again but seldom command sufficient interest among media agencies to fund the freelancers who provide the backbone of their news coverage. And once the story is downgraded from headline material, even top-ranked parachute journalists and leader writers will look for bigger fish to fry.

That two-week window has direct relevance to SAF war planners as a hot war scenario that deploys the full force potential of Singapore's war machine will have to wrap things up within xx days. This falls within the 14-day window of media attention, which means the situation in the SAF's zone of operations will continue to command foreign media attention from the first shot to ceasefire.

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