Until about 10 years ago, the Japanese term “masu-gomi” — rubbishy mass media — was a derogatory word only known to a few Internet users. Not anymore.

On March 11, 2011, Japan experienced a major earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in the northern region followed. All told, about 25,000 died or went missing. Two years later, more than 310,000 evacuees have been unable to return to their homes. Decontamination work at the power plant progresses at a snail’s pace.

The unprecedented level of the disaster stunned the nation, including its journalists.

Credibility in Question

Without much time and sufficient background in nuclear expertise, reporters rushed to feed what the government, bureaucrats, academia and the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, wanted them to tell the public.

When the government and TEPCO gave only partial facts or no facts at all, the resulting reports became inaccurate or simply wrong. The credibility of the press — as well as the authorities — fell sharply.

“Rather than trying to find out the truth, the media became a PR machine for the establishment,” says Yasuo Onuki, a journalist who used to be an executive producer at Japan’s public broadcasting service, NHK.

Some dubbed the Japanese media reports as “announcements by the Japanese Imperial Army headquarters” as in World War Two. Back then, the media deliberately downplayed Japanese casualties in the Battle of Midway, which is said to have been the most important naval battle of the war.

Waseda University professor Jiro Mori has a more measured view.

“The reason that important facts were not covered soon enough was, mostly, the media’s insufficient ability to pursue the facts and a lack of good reporting skills.

“If the public got frustrated by the level of reporting, it reflects their high expectations. People believe that the media can do much more,” Mori says.

Science journalist Shigeyuki Koide, who was a senior writer at Japan’s national daily, Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, until 2011, says that a certain level of distrust in the media among the public is “healthy.”

“How to interpret what the media say is up to you — readers or viewers.”

But what if there are no reports or no journalists?

Unfiltered Reports Fill the Gap

On March 26, 2011, about two weeks after the disaster struck Fukushima Prefecture and surrounding areas, Katsunobu Sakurai, the mayor of Minami Soma, a city in Fukushima, appeared in a YouTube video. Minami Soma is about 25 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, where the explosions had occurred. By then, the government asked residents in the affected areas to evacuate or stay indoors.

“We are left isolated,” Sakurai said, bespectacled and wearing emergency gear.

Although the city asked the residents to evacuate, about 20,000 people still lived in the city. Substantial lack of supplies to the city and insufficient information from the government and TEPCO were major problems.

Speaking in Japanese but with English subtitles on screen, Sakurai spoke to the world. If the media “do not step into this area and get direct information,” they will never be able to get or tell what really is the situation with the residents, he said.

“We would urge them to come here and witness what is happening.”

It was a plea from the heart.

A blogger and former journalist at another daily, Asahi Shimbun newspaper, Yasuharu Dando records the press’ spinelessness in his blog.

According to Dando, there was an article carried in the Asahi Shimbun on March 15, 2011, in which a staffer in charge of locating the journalists on the ground, “instructed the correspondents in Fukushima Prefecture to get out from a 30-kilometer radius and report from indoors.”

It was March 12, the day after the disaster hit, when the government had set the evacuation area at a 20-kilometer radius.

Not everything is in a sorry state, though. One survey shows that the majority of Japanese people on the whole give a thumbs-up to the media.

According to the Central Research Services, its 2011 media research on 3,461 people showed that the respondents gave an average score of 72 out of 100 in terms of trustworthiness of Japanese newspapers. This is the same score as in the previous year. They gave higher scores to NHK, at 74.3.

But while 75.5 percent of the respondents said the newspapers’ earthquake reports were good, in terms of reporting the nuclear accidents, the percentage drastically drops. Only 39.4 percent said the papers’ reporting of radiation levels was satisfactory, for example.

A Role for New Media

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Wataru Sakata, a university student and blogger, says that March 11 offered an opportunity to give the Internet a proper status as a form of media: “A myth that there isn’t correct information on the Internet has at last collapsed in Japan.”

When people wanted to know more than the limited reports by the mainstream media, “they turned to the Internet and found expert opinions or information from the overseas media.”

That once sniffed-at medium, Twitter, also gained a broader status. It has been a useful vehicle for many to spread the information, although the ease of using Twitter also at times contributed to the spreading of inaccurate data.

One of the destinations for information seekers was an opinion site, BLOGOS, which attracted the eyes of parents who were concerned about the safety of radiation with regard to their children. Similar to America’s Huffington Post, about 700 bloggers write about their known fields for the site. Launched three years ago, it now has 25 million page views a month.

“Opinions from people who actually know about the relevant areas, instead of critics, are much more convincing,” says BLOGOS editor Kota Otani.

The disaster also presented an opportunity for freelance journalists who filed numerous reports, often from the affected areas, without the constraints of rules governing the main stream media. The Free Press Association of Japan, founded in January 2011, has been holding press conferences for them to grill those in power.

Hirohito Yamada is a co-founder of a new web service, called “byus”  (read as “by”- “us” ). The site picks current affairs topics and asks its users to express their opinions. Side-by-side, the site displays the pros and cons of a chosen topic.

“We wanted to create an opportunity for people to think critically about issues” instead of accepting what others want you to think, Yamada says.

“It’s easy to simply accept what the mainstream media present us,” a 23-year-old student, Rei Omori, says. “But I learned what I saw and read does not tell the whole picture. The important thing is to use the media, instead of automatically taking things in as they are.”

Former newspaper journalist Koide has also taken a new step, stimulated by the March 11 incident.

“The shambles and confusion following the earthquake and nuclear accidents revealed a failure of scientific communication among the government, the nuclear power industry and the scientists’ community,” he says.

In January, Koide began activities to develop what he describes as “middle media,” which is aimed at niche readers and audiences. In its first symposium, he invited doctors and parents in Fukushima Prefecture to talk about the danger of thyroid cancer among children in the affected areas. Next month, he plans another symposium.

Tokyo correspondent of a British newspaper, the Guardian, Justin McCurry, warns of the danger of the media taking their “eyes off the ball as time passes.”

McCurry visited Fukushima last month and the main fear among residents was that the Japanese national press was no longer interested in Fukushima, apart from anniversaries, etc.

“Several people I met said they now depend on the international media to keep this issue alive.”

Photo by Luis Jou García on Flickr and used with Creative Commons license.

Ginko Kobayashi is a freelance Japanese journalist and author. She lives in London and writes about media, technology, journalism and social affairs while going back and forth between Japan and Britain. Her books include “History of the British Media” and “WikiLeaks That Japanese People Don’t Know.” She blogs about British media and publishes a column on Yahoo! Japan as well as on BLOGOS.

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This post originally appeared on the website of the European Journalism Center, an independent, international, non-profit institute dedicated to training journalists and media professionals to the highest standards in journalism.