When the calibre of disaster reaches that of Japan’s March 11th 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the only word that comes to mind is devastation. Mind you, I’m saying this as a detached westerner. While I have great empathy for the people who were faced with such tragedy, all I have are words. There is no way I could ever know what they feel unless I too were put in such a situation.
Unfortunately with disasters as complex as this one, it’s hard to make the public understand the background to the story – especially when things get complicated, and this disaster got complicated in a hurry.
Japan is located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, which means it’s prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, so Japan was prepared for this – to a certain extent. Infrastructure in the country was constructed to withstand a certain level of seismic activity, and many buildings in the larger cities did survive the massive quake – it was the tsunami that did most of the devastation. Entire families and villages were lost. Several nuclear reactors along the coasts were damaged, and this is what quickly caused so much panic in the media.
The problem with reporting a disaster such as this one is the science. Not many people can honestly say they know how a nuclear reactor works, let alone gauge the dangers involved with a damaged one. When news anchors and reporters go on about cooling chambers and fuel rods I think it’s safe to say that the majority of people’s eyes glaze over.
But, thanks to the use of multi-media tools, telling this story becomes much easier. Using videos, interactive graphs, photo essays and diagrams, journalists can bring forth the necessary information and present it in a way that makes sense to the public.
In my opinion, The New York Times has done the best job with illustrating the story. They have a gallery of different multimedia tools explaining different areas of the story. Complex issues such as the hazards involved with storing spent fuel from a reactor, and explaining in an animated video how a nuclear reactor shuts down and exactly what happens in a meltdown.
Having access to these forms of media better enables the public to fully understand what is happening in Japan. We are able to see the before and after pictures, we can see how a nuclear reactor works, and we can see how an earthquake occurs. Multimedia allows us to see the stories that otherwise couldn’t possibly be told as effectively.