Having served an LDS mission in southwest Japan, my heart has been profoundly touched as I have watched the suffering of those good people in the "Yukiguni" of northern Japan.
With you, I read with excitement that the LDS missionaries in Sendai were all safe and accounted for.
With you, I read with sorrow the accounts of the trauma this dynamic event and the terrific reporting accompanying it.
But as a journalist who also teaches, I wondered about something else. What to make of journalism's coverage of radiation, seemingly spewing from the Fukushima nuclear power plants, damaged in the quake's aftermath?
Much of the reporting on Fukushima seems intelligent and designed to convey knowledge, but is it any surprise that many feel fear as reporters talk of danger scales rising from a four to a six — one step below Chernobyl? Is it any wonder that people feel fear as constant comparisons to Three Mile Island hit the airwaves? Is it any wonder that people feel fear when well-intentioned government gives people sensible iodine as a preventative — just in case — implying that a problem has emerged already or pictures of explosions are shown over and over again with little to explain it?
Journalists have a nearly impossible task here.
For one thing, there isn't a consensus on the dangers of radiation. There are smart, if obscure, voices that say radiation, far from harmful, is often a very good thing for health. There are equally smart, if obscure, voices that say that the dangers of nuclear fallout may be far greater than most people are saying. Figuring out how to sort these out — and the political agendas that seem to be behind some of the research gets very tricky. Is it any wonder that fear follows a news graphic explaining a nuclear meltdown in such underlying confusion?
I am not speaking as an expert on radiation, but I hope, and I have nothing really concrete on which to base that hope, the dangers implied in the heavy media coverage are overblown. Like most reporters, I really don't know.
It wouldn't be the first time reporters overhyped a story and left fear in their wake.
In 2005, Dr. Marc Siegel wrote that we live in an artificial culture of fear enhanced by constant media stories. And this is ironic. The statistics show life is better than ever. Life expectancies are longer. People are living safer, healthier lives. Yet, many people seem to feel fear.
Consider this list: SARS, Bird flu, anthrax, nuclear terror, random murder and toxic landfills. Many of those things hyped in the media didn't turn out to be very much for most people.
Not wearing seat belts, texting while driving, failing to exercise, smoking, alcohol and poor sanitation — these are the things to fear. Millions die each year as a direct consequence of obesity, for example, yet not enough fear it.
In public policy, earthquakes throughout the American west — and potential tsunamis along the coast — call out for preparation, where global warming or the disease of the day may often receive far more attention or even funding.
Fear, Siegel argues, ultimately becomes almost an illness itself. Constant fearful stories overwhelm us, causing our brains and bodies to produce fear chemicals in ways hard to turn off. The brain becomes gradually overwhelmed, and the body begins to live in a constant state of physical fear, which, in turn, has health effects.
Now, I am not saying that journalists deliberately hype news stories to get ratings, but the nature of news is that the big story of the day is what is the most compelling and it must be told. Nuclear meltdown compels. Drifting clouds of radiation creates dramatic tension. Self-sacrificing nuclear workers are easy heroes. The point is that journalists tell stories. The time and demands of telling stories impel narratives in ways that are almost unconscious.
Furthermore, journalism ethics suggest that reporters should sound the warning to citizens, so journalists are only being professional when they tell the long details of a story like this.
Beyond that, powerful governmental and other interests hype fear for their own purposes say to pass important legislation or to grow budgets, not realizing the harmful effects they may be creating on citizens. It was fear in some senses that led to the creation of government bureaus like the EPA and Homeland Security. Many careers were made that way. Fear abetted this creation of vast government agencies that have an implied, powerful interest to continue to stoke fear, even when those same agencies mean well. Companies profit from fear of disease and harm, too.
To combat fear, people must do as has been suggested: think, pray, exercise, sleep, eat well, work hard and pray some more. All of those can help us gradually subdue some of the demons that spring up in our culture of fear.
Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.
As the Mormon Media Observer, Lane is interested in hearing your ideas for stories at firstname.lastname@example.org.