Disaster reporting is in its DNA

TOKYO — Japanese pubcaster Nippon Hoso Kyokai, once frequently in the news for a series of internal scandals, has redeemed itself in the eyes of local viewers thanks to its 24/7 coverage of the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the ensuing nuclear reactor disaster.

While the global media, including CNN and BBC, was slow getting up to speed on Japan’s biggest natural disaster in decades, NHK was not only broadcasting live from its Shibuya studio moments after the 9.0 magnitude quake hit (and the studio itself was still shaking), but also issuing tsunami warnings well before the big waves struck.

Viewers around the world were riveted by NHK footage, taken by cameramen in helicopters and on coastal vantage points, of roiling tsunami waters sweeping across fields and obliterating towns.

At the same time, NHK reporters were suddenly everywhere in the disaster zone, interviewing victims and relief workers and relaying vital information to stricken communities, such as where to seek shelter or how to locate missing loved ones.

While this reaction is expected of news webs, the service is actually encoded in NHK’s DNA.

Founded in 1926 as a radio service modeled on British pubcaster the BBC, NHK began broadcasting in 1953.

Under the 1950 Broadcast Act, NHK is obliged to air early warning emergency reports in times of natural disasters. Such coverage is therefore NHK’s raison d’etre and, like the BBC, it has become the trusted source of information in perilous times.

NHK has reported on dozens of quakes, tsunamis, typhoons, plane crashes and volcanic eruptions, while establishing detailed rules for everything from forbidden words for newscasters (including such panic inducers as “devastating” and “massive”) to disaster etiquette for reporters in the field, who ask victims “What do you need?” rather than “How do you feel?”

Hype and emotion are conspicuous by their absence. In the last few weeks, NHK’s polite, sober and even-tempered broadcasting style has struck the right note with anxious viewers, who found it calming and reassuring — even those who had once derided the style as staid and stuffy.

Technically, NHK’s quake and tsunami coverage is unmatched. With access to the Japan Meteorological Agency’s nationwide network of seismometers, NHK can report the location and intensity of a quake onscreen moments after it has occurred.

With 46 local stations in Japan, including the worst-hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, NHK was close to the story and had the personnel to report it in depth. It assigned 500 reporters to quake coverage.

As the aftermath of the disaster — including radiation leaks and explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant — entered its second week, NHK was slow to return to normal programming.

From March 11 to 22, it broadcast 254 hours of disaster coverage, or nearly 22 hours a day, on its general channel. That’s not counting the quake-related info NHK has been supplying on its two satellite strands and its website.

According to the Oricon rating service, NHK accounted for all of the top 10 programs in the news category for the week of March 14-20. The top-rated show, a 60-minute NHK news program broadcast at 7 p.m. on March 19, grabbed a 29.8% rating.

Producer Richard Kipris, whose Tokyo-based Virgin Earth provided support and production services for the European Broadcasting Union and foreign news outlets who came to Japan to cover the quake, praised NHK for giving a more complete picture of the disaster than foreign competitors who sent “one or two of their best reporters to the worst-hit areas, showing the most egregious damage … They couldn’t begin to pull off what NHK was doing in terms of breadth of reporting.”

Ironically, before the quake, NHK was more often in the news for its various internal troubles, including a spate of scandals that peaked in the mid-2000s. Staffers were nabbed for embezzling production funds and profiting from insider info.

NHK prexy Katsuji Ebisawa resigned in 2005 after it was revealed that a program about WWII Japanese army sex slaves was re-edited at the request of powerful politicos.

These scandals contributed to shortfalls in revenues, as an estimated 1 million households refused to pay the mandatory annual $182 receiving fee, partly in protest, that contributes to the pubcaster’s near $7 billion annual budget.

Many of those viewers have been glued to NHK since the quake struck, and some may even have survived because of the information it provided, now making the fee seem cheap indeed.

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