WaPo on Japan’s NHK: ‘The best place to follow a disaster and the strangest’

By Alex Weprin 

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The Washington Post has a fascinating look at how NHK, Japan’s public broadcast network, covered the earthquake and subsequent tsunami and nuclear crisis.

Suffice it to say, the coverage would seem completely foreign to a viewer accustomed to the way western news organizations cover disasters:

For those accustomed to the breathless coverage of Western cable news, NHK can feel almost pedantic — it has the resources of the BBC but the quirks of a middle-school science teacher. In-studio analysts hold long talks about microsieverts. A cardboard model of a nuclear reactor is kept behind the anchor desk, available as a prop to illustrate the malfunctions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

For many viewers, the cardboard reactor is far more recognizable than the on-air personality talking about it. NHK has no star personalities, and in fact, it doesn’t want them. During disaster coverage, it rotates its anchors off camera every hour, as if to ensure their namelessness. They are paid and treated equally, one executive said.

NHK provided some of the most compelling images, as it has planted hundreds of cameras throughout the country just in case a disaster struck, and it had a helicopter in the air as the tsunami struck land (see above).

Its anchors do not use certain words that might make a catastrophe feel like a catastrophe. “Massive” is prohibited. Same with “severe.” NHK gives its cub reporters an earthquake and tsunami coverage manual — Japan is a country famous for manuals — and here it instructs them in how not to stir panics, and how to properly apologize when calling local officials for updates.

Indeed, NHK, as part of its core mission, aims to keep viewers levelheaded.

This makes NHK, at once, the best place to follow a disaster and the strangest. Its restrained reaction to all things harrowing and life-threatening is one of those textbook Japanese paradoxes, and in recent weeks Japan has responded to its crisis much in the manner that NHK has presented it.

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