U.S.-Centric Coverage of the Japan Disaster

By Nikki Broderick ‘14Staff Writer

Once again, U.S. media and television have done what they do best: further convinced themselves and the United States that news only matters when it relates to us. Major news outlets jumped on covering the shocking magnitude 8.9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that rocked Japan on Friday, March 11—the night of Thursday, March 10 in the United States—and caused thousands of deaths, injuries, and many more displaced citizens whose homes were destroyed.

The media simply could not resist the opportunity to look at these natural disasters through a U.S. centric lens. Half my search results for “tsunami 3/11/11” into Google news garnered not news detailing the devastation in Japan, but articles reassuring me that the tsunami wouldn’t reach the Pacific coast of the United States.

Within days, major news corporations sent correspondents into the desolation that was Japan hit by such a cruel natural disaster. News anchors asked their field reporters what was happening on the ground and greatly sympathized with the Japanese people and their undeserved plight. But U.S. anchors just couldn’t get through a segment without noting how the United States would have fared in such a situation.

Following the coverage of the resulting circumstances of Hawaii’s tsunami, comforting Americans that those in Hawaii would not face the tragic consequences that had been feared, the media focused on the nuclear power panic in Japan. How did they focus on it, though? By investigating all nuclear power plants in earthquake danger regions in the United States—such as those along the Andreas Fault in Southern and Central California. Yes, the media gave attention to the nuclear power

plants in Japan and even brought in experts in the field for panel discussions. But these discussions always ended in addressing possible ramifications for nuclear power plants in the United States.

Around the globe, other news organizations also covered the disasters in Japan. In particular,

I watched BBC America’s coverage—and not once was the United Kingdom’s safety or wellbeing mentioned. True, the United Kingdom isn’t in a danger area for earthquakes and the ripple of the tsunami in Japan had no chance of affecting Britain. However, plenty of other factors—such as connections to the Japanese economy, nuclear power and a historically amicable British-Japanese relation (with the exception of World War II)—could have shaped coverage such that Japan was sidelined in its own tragedy. And yet, these factors did not come to the forefront in reporting.

Why is it that just the United States perpetuates the notion that only news with a U.S. agenda will be relevant to its audience? I too am guilty of such self-centered thinking. My parents live only a mile from the beach in Los Angeles, and when I heard about the earthquake on the news and its potential to hit the California coast I immediately switched my news search to what could happen if it came close to us.

Perhaps it’s human nature to only empathize with a tragedy by placing yourself in that situation, to imagine yourself suffering from similar dire devastation. But should the media perpetuate this selfishness? The purpose of news journalism is to report facts accurately and without bias, not have a selfish agenda. It is part of the cultural preconceptions of U.S. citizens that we are the world’s largest player. And this assumption skews, and subsequently undermines, our coverage of events that don’t take place in the United States… ultimately forcing partiality upon the newscasters and their audience.