Reporting Activities in Disaster Areas
I saw first when I arrived at the Administrative Disaster Relief Headquarters
was some journalists tapping keyboards of their personal computers in a
corridor with rolled sleeping bags right beside them. They were the ones who
couldn't enter the room which had been already jampacked by other media people.
I really wondered how long they had been there.
In the evening of the fourth day after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, I stepped into the Headquarters, located on the 8th floor of Kobe City office, applying to be a volunteer for the press. The room, as large as a sort of hall, was divided at the center by a partition wall into a press room and the headquarters of administrative organizations. In the noisy room, TV reporters were talking to their cameras here and there. Lots of telecommunication facilities were set in rows on desks. Newspapermen were summarizing their memos. And city officials were answering interviews with a look of excitement. From windows, you could see helicopters taking off with a deafening roar from Higashi amusement park, a temporary heliport.
I had thought that I should have become accustomed to this "unusual" world during the several days after the quake. But here, another kind of unusual world, which was even hysterical, existed and it shook my sensibility so furiously.
Amid the clamor, various kinds of information were concentrated into hand-written memos on a board; the death toll and the number of collapsed houses mounting every minute, additional orders of evacuation, and so on. And at the next moment, that news was dispatched not only to the domestic but also to the global mass media.
A city official whom I knew by face came to me and said that he was lucky to have taken a nap for as long as two hours the night before. He said that officials had been working without sleeping or resting since the morning of the earthquake, when the first press conference was held by the mayor at 7:40AM, and the Disaster Relief Headquarters was established at 8:00AM. I thought it must have been the same with those journalists.
I was asked to be interviewed by TV crews who had just arrived from Australia. Wearing a blue sweater, I must have easily attracted their attention in the room, looking "ordinary" enough for them to talk to, as I was among city officials all wearing beige uniforms. Since then, I have played the role of a messenger to transmit messages between media people and city officials.
While Japanese journalists were mostly conscious of the current situation of damaged areas and administrative emergency measures, their foreign counterparts were more eager to know about damage in economic terms and the long-term perspective of recovery, such as how long it would take to reconstruct the Kobe port, and which port was going to take over its container work during this time. It shows how widely Kobe had been known to the world as a trading port. And I also sensed that those foreign journalists must have had many experiences reporting activities at the front and disaster areas all over the world, since they hardly reveal their emotions in speech and action while they are performing their tasks.
My job there was mostly pigeonholing various materials and E-mails and it lasted for several days. It is said as many as 700 journalists were there in that press room at one time. I saw so many TV relay cars parked around the city government building, and so many TV reporters talking volubly to their cameras. The "reportorial battle" continued for about 10 days after the quake, and it looked as if it would be endless.
Two weeks after the quake, however, when rail operations resumed between Suma and Kobe and Sannomiya became filled with people again, the press corps in the Relief Headquarters began to decrease as if in inverse proportion.
In addition, two months later a terrible incident occurred in Tokyo, which was even more sensational than the earthquake. It made the focus of the media drift away from quake-hit areas. Each time I visited the headquarters I found fewer and fewer figures there, and at last the place itself closed several months later. Now, what the mass media does with Kobe is just to take it up sometimes in a memorial fashion such as "How are the disaster areas and the people doing, ( ) months after that earthquake?"
I really do wonder now, what on earth that turmoil was, which lasted for some days, created by the media people.
It was for sure that their reporting activities can be estimated to a certain degree, because in fact the world was watching Kobe at least during that period, worrying and requiring information on the disaster areas. The electric waves running through the air made Kobe the top news of the world and spurred many people on to take action in various ways, such as volunteer activities, donations, or sending emergency relief materials.
On the other hand, however, it was also true that almost no information was delivered to the victims in the hardest hit areas just after the quake, although they were desperately in need of it more than anybody else.
Even more unfortunately, inappropriate and careless statements of TV reporters and exaggerated headlines of newspapers and magazines hurt the victims' feelings and rubbed them the wrong way. I know, of course, that we cannot blame those journalists, who were devoting themselves to their jobs with a sense of mission despite a fear of furious aftershocks. But there are definitely some problems they should review and reconsider. For example, every TV station was broadcasting the same film repeatedly, and the contents of their reports were almost the same. Was it really necessary for every station to dispatch a large crew to disaster areas amid the utmost confusion, to do field activities running risks individually? Wouldn' t it have been enough, at least for several days after the killer tremor, for them to collaborate and dispatch a representative group of crews?
Instead of TV relay cars, the earliest possible arrival of more emergency vehicles was needed in quake-hit areas. And they, as journalists, should have considered more of smoother exchanges of information between evacuation shelters as superior to anything else. Isn't it the true mission of journalism to send accurate information speedily to the people ultimately in need of it?
I think it is necessary for the media to keep reporting about damaged towns and people on a long-term basis, not in the way they did before, like it was some kind of "boom". Their appropriate way of reporting would also help and contribute to an accelerated reconstruction of the areas.
I also suggest that they devise the best system and method of reporting to lead to a better understanding of the victims here, which will keep stirring listeners and readers to support them. I believe this must be the task of the mass media from now on.