The Japanese Earthquake - Media and Feelings

UPDATE: I've written a longer and more detailed account of the below here, for PBS MediaShift.
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The reports and pictures of devastation in Japan  reminded me of reporting on the earthquake that leveled Japan's port city of Kobe in 1995. I pray that this time the death toll turns out to be smaller than the 6,000-plus killed those years ago. The pain for me is, perhaps, sharper because of the memories, and that this many years later my friendships there have grown that much deeper.

As a media participant and observer, what struck me this time was how rich and multifaceted the information flow was. Then, I sat in the AP bureau in Tokyo, trying to understand what I could from Japanese broadcast news reports. We were sometimes able to reach someone , official or not, in the Kobe region via phone for a quick interview. We, of course, covered the major news conferences. I (and we, I believe) relied largely for information on the reporters and photographers  (including me three weeks, then six months after the quake) who were dispatched to the scene. Listening to and watching the broadcast channels, and the other wire services was an overwhelming and chaotic, but by today's standards, thin experience.

 Today, sitting in my living room in New York, I felt I had more information at my fingertips than I did then in the AP bureau in Tokyo. In front of me I had a TV connected to digital cable, an iPad, a Blackberry and a Web-connected computer. I got ahold of one Tokyo resident, one of my best friends, via his cellphone in Osaka. I confirmed another close friend in Tokyo was fine by reading her Facebook wall.Yet another I could see was OK by reading her bylines in AP reports. (She was, understandably, quite quiet on Twitter). I meanwhile, was able to watch Japanese TV channels via Ustream links I was referred to by my New York-based friend Sree Sreenivasan. I dipped into the Twitter and Facebook streams as I could. I flipped among reports from multiple publications and sources -- a New York Times slideshow here, a BBC TV show there. A decent amount of the Twitter stream, especially in Japanese, was not very useful in an informational sense; exclamations of relief or horror, or people making strange exclamations that seemed almost senseless. But there were also referrals to data, reports, information I could tap into all at my fingertips.

Each medium served its purpose, and none was better than the other, especially. The sheer amount of video, of course -- from a country that may have more cameras and camera-equipped cellphones than any other per capita -- was that much greater. Even on TV, I saw constantly updated videos among the various channels, rather than the same loop of packaged videos one tended to see in the TV-only era, and some of that video was from handheld cameras and cellphones. My friend in Tokyo, an American who is a very fluent translator, fed us information from Japanese news reports and her own eye-witness accounts. I learned, and was able to confirm, details large and small: that this was either the 5th or 6th largest quake in recorded history, that a nuclear plant was having trouble with its coolant, that 200-300 had died in one area, that a bunch of new cars were washed from a port, that 2 people had died in one town, 7 in another. I learned, by looking at captions of photos, of the geographic expanse affected and imagined what it was like in train stations and an airport I had visited where planes were now strewn about like children's toys. I wasn't reporting, but the feeling of being overwhelmed with data, getting reports that seemed wrong or needed clarification, not being sure what sources could be trusted, and knowing that numbers and quantifications would change (often for the worse) was the same. The feeling of being connected was much stronger, this much farther away.

So far, it seems, all those I know are fine, though I fear the missive that tells me who among my circle has suffered. I know the disaster will be felt for many many months, as it was in Kobe. We'll all feel it, if nothing else, in the way stock markets react and as there are hitches in manufacturing and shipments of Japan-made cars and other goods.</div><br /> In some ways, the connections this time were stronger and richer than they could have been then. My Tokyo friend's uncle and other relatives and friends logged on from New Jersey and wished her well. Friends in the U.S. asked about my loved ones in Japan in a way that was easy to handle but would have been intrusive in an era when we all had to rely on phones. Again, the media and communication did not change the event, fundamentally, but did change the way we were able to experience and share it. Resources like the Google people finder  in Japanese and English, and some social media outreach may have even changed things in a more fundamental way.

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