by Alessia Cerantola and Scilla Alecci

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck Japan on March 11 also shook major Italian media outlets as readers accused them of sensationalism and lack of professionalism.

Many TV and newspaper reporters sent to the afflicted areas to cover the disaster were blamed for failing to provide concise and reliable news, delivering instead exaggerated and imprecise data.

[Tokyo] is today a capital in agony. It is about to collapse and is expecting the worst”, “Peppe is the last Italian in Tokyo” (later revised), “Photographs from Saitama, the stadium-shelter of the contaminated people,” read some of the articles that appeared in the days immediately after the quake on the websites of La Repubblica and Il Corriere della Sera – two of Italy’s largest newspapers.

The tone of the articles angered those who felt that the reality described by the correspondents didn’t match what they were experiencing first hand in Tokyo or elsewhere in the country. It didn’t take long for some Japan-savvy Italians, inside and outside the country, to start sending letters of protest to the editors.

Japan Truth

An Italian group called Giappone Shinjitu (Japan Truth) was created on Facebook to gather the most factual information possible about the situation unfolding in Japan. Its purpose resembles that of the website Wall of Shame, where people can report inaccurate, speculative or sensationalist articles on the earthquake and the ensuing nuclear crisis.

“Now we have the chance to check facts,” said Giappone Shinjitsu group founder Paola Teresa Ghirotti, a photographer specialising in Japanese matters and a member of the Italian Association for Japanese Studies (Aistugia). Along with some of the 1200 followers of the group, Ghirotti began to crosscheck articles in order to verify the consistency of the news reported in the Italian media.  According to their findings, “the names of the people [quoted in the articles] were real but they were attributed to different people,” she said. For instance, the name of a Japanese company spokesman recently found in an article by the Associated Press became a fireman in an Italian article, according to the list of inconsistencies published by the group.

News and facts were often mixed with opinions and other stereotypes about the “samurai spirit” of the Japanese people. But with a community of 3000 Italians living both temporarily and permanently in Japan, and a good percentage of Japanese speakers among them, the apocalyptic tone of the articles was promptly contradicted and inaccurate information was confuted.

“Those who live in Japan just report what they see and hear while a correspondent reconstructs the facts and often applies Italian filters,” commented Francesco Formiconi, president of the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Japan. “[This time] the journalists overlooked their duty to consider the importance of a truthful information for the [Italian expats] who decided to stay in Japan”, he said.

As a consequence of cost-cutting measures and a growing interest in China, which recently overtook Japan as the second largest economy in the world, many foreign newsrooms have shut down their Tokyo bureaus to reduce staff costs. As a result only three Italian media can rely on official correspondents in Japan; the national wire agency (ANSA), Sky TV and the daily Il Manifesto.

When the Tohoku earthquake occurred, many correspondents with little experience of Japan and no knowledge of the language, flocked to the country to report on the unprecedented natural disaster and nuclear emergency. However, many interpreted reality without considering the consequences of their reporting, according to Mikihito Tanaka, Associate Professor at the Journalism School of Waseda University and research manager at the Science Media Center in Tokyo. “For the foreign media this may have been the ‘horror island beyond the sea’ and a chance to sell more copies and increase audience through fear mongering. Or, from a more positive perspective, it was a chance to improve energy policies in their own country,” explained Professor Tanaka. “However, what many of those journalists didn’t realise was that in the age of Internet, language boundaries can be overcome in an instant and their news can easily influence the people involved in the event.”

A man in Tokyo reads comics near the empty shelves of a convenience store after the government announced rolling blackouts.

For ANSA Italian correspondent Antonio Fatiguso, who has been living in Japan for three years, it is also a matter of knowing the country, as big changes can be seen in little details. “Someone who has been living for years in Japan perceives things that a reporter who is ‘catapulted’ here cannot,” he said.

While sensationalist coverage of the Tohoku earthquake provoked particularly strong reactions among Italian readers, in comparison to that of other disasters such as the Wenchuan earthquake, experts said this kind of coverage by many Italian media is no exception. According to journalist and media consultant Vittorio Pasteris, Italian media do not have a long tradition of reporting about foreign countries. “Sadly, we are a country which for years has been restricted to Italo-centric information”, Pasteris explained. He also attributed part of the responsibility to the readers as “Italians digest whatever they’re fed,” he said.

However, this time it was not the case; some Italian readers sent critical comments to articles and the newspapers were forced to revise and correct them.

Sensationalism damages credibility

“What was striking, especially at the beginning of the coverage, was the absence of any basic scientific knowledge about the earthquake and the radiation or nuclear power in general,” Professor Tanaka said, referring to European media as a whole. This time, readers worked as proof-readers and fact-checkers, shaking an information system in which, traditionally, news travel one way from the reporter to the audience. “The good thing is that in the era of globalisation such sensationalism goes together with skepticism,” said Professor Tanaka, who said that as a Japanese national he was more upset by the “entertaining tone of many news stories” than by their sensationalist aspect.

Akio Fujiwara, Italian correspondent for the Japanese daily Mainichi Shinbun, agreed with Professor Tanaka’s view, saying there is a need for more sang-froid among reporters. “[It would be appropriate] to report precise information and explain the meaning of the cold hard facts, like in the case of the plutonium leaked [from the nuclear plant],” he said. “If there are any doubts, then we must also report, in concrete terms, the reasons for these doubts.”

According to Fujiwara, some Italian and foreign television stations were more misleading than the newspapers. On many channels news presenters were speaking over old and stark images (showing the exploding reactors for example) that were played on loop. “They didn’t lie but without a thorough explanation of what is being shown, people get scared.”

With the mainstream media in Italy losing credibility, audiences shifted their attention towards alternative sources of information such as social networking platforms. “This demonstrates the weaknesses of the old information system in which the veracity of a reporter’s observations used to be taken for granted,” said Marco Del Bene, Professor of Japanese language and history at La Sapienza University in Rome. “Now there is a concrete risk for the traditional media,” Professor Del Bene warned. “When the official channels lose their credibility, anybody can rustle up information that cannot be verified. I trust journalists, but they have to be more trustworthy than bloggers.”

This article appeared on European Journalism Centre website on April 11, 2011.