On story and spin: Remembering 3/11

It’s that time of year. I want to add the word, ‘again’ – but the repetition is pre-emptive. Today is the first time I mark the anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake outside of Japan. Last year I went back for the official memorial service. Two years ago, when the earthquake struck, I was living in Sendai, the closest city to the epicentre. As a long standing graduate of Media Studies I thought I had a good understanding of how the media machine worked. Yet it took my experience of being in that disaster to grasp these processes fully. Being the reported-on rather than the reporter increased my sensitivity to telling a story fairly, to checking facts and being considerate of those I’m writing about. Story is crucial to non-fiction but there is a fine line between story and spin.

The perspective from where I was standing when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck.

I never missed my media more than in the days after the earthquake. My partner and I were in the eye of a media storm. We had no electricity, no phones and no internet. We couldn’t speak Japanese, so talking to our neighbours was out. We sat, ignorant and in darkness while screens across the world glowed with information about what was happening around us. The earthquake struck at 2.46pm Japan-time (4.46pm in Melbourne). It wasn’t until 9.00pm that we learned a huge tsunami had inundated communities less than 10 kilometres away. This was five hours after the event.

Of course, when our electricity and internet was restored a few days later I was hungry for information. The first thing I did was go to the websites of English language newspapers. It didn’t take me long to wish I hadn’t.

It wasn’t that these newspapers were giving me dire information. I already knew the situation was pretty grim. It was that these newspapers were taking a sensational angle on the information they had. They were highly selective in what they chose to publish, and from my quiet perch in Sendai I could finally see the play between story and spin. I could understand it too: the readerships of these papers (and some of their reporters) were safely ensconced overseas.

Radiation fears from plant explosion’ is a harrowing headline to read when you’re less than 100 kilometres from said plant. I remember looking for information in detailed articles like this while I was in Sendai. But I realised that though I was among the most in need of information I was not the target audience. The reports weaved information with schadenfreude and titillation. For me, the spin went in the wrong direction.

I read about a colleague reported as missing when in fact he wasn’t. I heard stories of TV journalists insisting interviews with locals were conducted outside one of the few significantly damaged buildings in Sendai city. These reports invariably ended with speculation. They were guaranteed page-turners investing an appetite for the next day’s news. The best advice I got that week was from an Australian consulate official. He told me not to look at news sites but instead, the embassy sites. These were produced by people in the business of providing information. Understanding this difference between news and information was a revelation for me.

In the past week I’ve seen reports anticipating the second anniversary of the earthquake. Again I am reminded that distance makes a difference to spin. So many of these English-language reports are focused on the worst and most tragic of the situation: a story about lingering radioactivity, another about suicides.

Watching and reading these with the perspective of someone who was there heightens my awareness of my duties as a writer. Lee Gutkind says, ‘you can’t make this stuff up,’ and serious writers of non-fiction try not to. But what we choose to focus on is critical, the way we frame our questions, select our words and write up our stories will always put a spin on things. Writers, take care.

Not surprisingly I am super sensitive to reports on this particular event. It brings up fears and memories that at times I’d like to forget. I don’t appreciate the negativity put on the futures of people I care about. But as a writer I am grateful for what will be an annual reminder of the need for balance. It will always encourage me to use my words respectfully.


Help me raise funds for earthquake and tsunami victims

Make a small donation to earthquake and tsunami victims by downloading my long form essay about my experience of the earthquake.

All royalties on sales this week (11 to 17 March 2013 inclusive) will go to the Japan Red Cross Earthquake and Tsunami fund.

More details are outlined on my website pepironalds.com/help-japan

If there’s anything you can do to help spread word of this fundraising effort I’d be most appreciative.