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How Japan's NHK Public Broadcaster Adapted to Cover the Earthquake and Tsunami

NHK Crew Films in Disaster Area
NHK.

The pubcaster wins praise for its objective, understated coverage of the earthquake and nuclear crisis.

TOKYO -- Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, and its English-language global channel, NHK World, came into their own during the triple disasters of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis that began March 11, although it is yet to commercialize its strengths in the same way as the British Broadcasting Corp.

When Japan’s Meteorological Agency issued a warning for a major earthquake at 2:46 pm on Friday, March 11, NHK had the message on viewers' screens in two seconds.

“NHK holds disaster drills after midnight every evening across eight locations; the training and experience that people acquire is put to use at times like this,” says Atsushi Matsumoto, director at the Disaster and Safety Information Center of NHK’s news department. “Our strength is not just in broadcasting, but the fact that we have an extensive national network that is in place and prepared for natural disasters.”

Within a minute and 30 seconds of the earthquake, NHK had cut from a live broadcast of a Japanese parliamentary debate to rolling coverage of the unfolding catastrophe. NHK, however, would never use a word as evocative as "catastrophe" in its matter-of-fact reporting style, which won plaudits from many who preferred it to the breathless hysteria that permeated much of the global media’s coverage.

“An element of our duty as a public broadcaster is to present the news with impartiality, independence and to have a complete separation of fact and opinion,” explains Matsumoto.

 

The public broadcaster has 460 robot cameras set up along the coast and at key locations such as airports, harbors and nuclear power stations, which are able to provide live feeds during disasters. It was some of these, along with 12 of its  helicopters that it deployed, that provided some of the most dramatic footage that was beamed around the globe, as the resulting tsunami laid huge swathes of the northeast coast to waste.   The footage, which also came from 50 satellite broadcast trucks, was provided free to broadcasters around the globe, some of which simply switched over to live feeds from NHK. Offering unrestricted access for the first 48 hours, NHK is not sure exactly how many outlets took advantage, although footage was taken by the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, Associated Press Television, Reuters, European Broadcasting Union and Asian Broadcasting Union.“We had so many international broadcasters using our footage that we added the English 'Live’ caption to the Japanese characters on-screen,” explains Matsumoto. “It’s not just a question of covering the story as a mass media outlet, NHK has a duty under its public charter regarding disaster reporting.”

Under that mandate, all its domestic broadcast channels – four TV and three radio stations – switched to disaster coverage, which continued 24 hours per day for the first week after the earthquake. “This being the era of three screens, as well as TV, we also broadcast on One-seg [Japan’s free digital TV system for mobile phones] and the Internet, through our own website and streaming on sites Nico Nico Live and Ustream. NHK also collaborated with Google to provide access to the missing person finder that the company had set up," he says.

Following the experience of the Hanshin (Kobe) Earthquake in 1995, policies for covering disasters were established. “But the scale of this was so much larger and the difficulty of actually getting in on the ground was very different,” according to Matsumoto.

Matsumoto says that in the past, NHK’s aim was to report on the damage and victims in the event of a natural disaster, “but now our focus is also on how to prevent damage and people becoming victims.”

As the situation at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant deteriorated, much of the foreign broadcast media pulled its crews out to Tokyo and even Osaka – another 250 miles away – to report on the supposed impending apocalypse. NHK meanwhile, was sending more crews into the disaster zone.

The broadcaster had 400 people already on the ground in local bureaus (Morioka, Sendai and Fukushima) in the worst-affected prefectures, plus another 700 that were sent in from outside.

“The problem of supplies was a major issue in this disaster, not just for the victims, but also for the news crews that were covering it,” says Matsumoto. “In the case of the Kobe earthquake, there was a major city nearby, Osaka, from which things could be sent quickly.”

“The situation was very different this time, and of course without food and gasoline, the news crews couldn’t work,” explains Matsumoto. “We had to send these from Tokyo but there were shortages of gasoline, so we used diesel trucks when we could.”

The public broadcaster re-launched its global channel, NHK World, in 2009 as a 24-hour, all-English service split 50-50 between news and programs about Japan. With a total staff of about 300, including around 50 native English-speaking rewriters and announcers, the channel also found its global profile raised by the disaster.

As well as its core overseas target audience, it became a vital source of information during the disaster for foreigners living in Japan. With the channel not usually available on television in Japan, NHK World’s website – which offers live streaming -- attracted 5.4 million unique users in the first 15 days of the disaster. The channel was also offered through some cable stations to six million households in Japan.   

“It was different to our usual broadcasts of 30 minutes of news and then regular programming. We were suddenly doing 24-hour rolling news with a huge amount of information coming in: the earthquake, the tsunamis, the massive numbers of evacuees, and then the nuclear plant story broke in the middle of that,” recalls Makoto Harada, the head of the international planning and broadcasting department.

“Because of a lot our people come from NHK, the style – the lack of sensationalism - is very similar, they have that ingrained in them,” says Harada. “As a basic rule, we don’t use adjectives, just stick to the facts.”

“Our feeds were being taken live by channels such as BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera. There was a lot of pressure to be accurate," according to Satoshi Kubo, head of the news and production division, who says NHK World doesn’t usually do much simultaneous translation, which it was suddenly undertaking with limited manpower for complicated and crucial press conferences about the crisis at the nuclear plant.

“And with the worries about radiation leaks in the early days, some of our own native English-speaking staff went back to their own countries, although most have now returned,” says Kubo.

NHK World has a current potential worldwide audience of approximately 130 million, set to rise to 137 million by the end of the year.

“We hope to see that increase from now on, but we don’t yet have the brand name of a BBC. So it’s been a kind of promotion to give our footage away this time,” says Harada. “We can’t have commercials now, but it’s possible in the future we could form a separate company and go in that direction.”

For now, NHK is planning to learn from the experience of covering the disaster.

“When things calm down again, we will be able to look at everything we did, and find out what we can improve on. For example, the power outages putting some of our robot cameras out of commission after the earthquake, and helicopter pads becoming unusable due to the tsunami,” says the Disaster and Safety Information Center’s Matsumoto.

“If the ‘big one’ hits Tokyo, it will help us in being able to respond better.”