Prevailing harmful rumor in Fukushima: Is it a fault of the Japanese news media?
Author: Kenzo Takahashi, MD, MHS, PhD
Affiliation: Teikyo University Graduate School of Public Health
Editors: Motoi Miura, Akihiko Ozaki
Under the host of the Medical Governance Association, the 12th Annual Symposium of Medical Reforms Promoting Practical Solutions from the Field (genba-karano iryou-kaikaku suishin kyougi-kai) was held at Fukutake Hall at the University of Tokyo on December 3-4, 2017. One of the most impressive talks on December 3 was the one about harmful rumors in Fukushima given by Mr. Hiroyasu Goami. Mr. Goami is a former journalist at Yomiuri Shimbun, one of the major nationwide newspaper companies in Japan, and now serves as the president of the Fukushima Minyu newspaper company, a local newspaper company in Fukushima. He pointed out Fukushima’s “shadows” and “lights” seven years after the disaster. Examples of the “lights” of Fukushima are the remarkably decreased air radiation dose rate thanks to decontamination activities, a progress of reconstruction activities backed up by the proactive participation of a lot of highly motivated people and the intention of the younger generation to work for the local communities in Fukushima.
In contrast, as an episode of “shadows,” he talked about one story in February 2017, which occurred possibly due to harmful rumors. Last winter, Fukushima Prefectural Office planned a study tour program to visit Korea for its residents and prepared for an airplane to Seoul. However, the foreign company refused to arrange the flight because the crews expressed a concern about using the Fukushima airport. In addition, the customers of the company claimed a concern about boarding a plane that once landed at the Fukushima airport. Following this incident, the Fukushima Minyu pointed out in its editorial that the air radiation dose rate in Seoul is 0.09 μsv/h, a figure higher than 0.08μsv/h in Fukushima, though this fact did not draw sufficient attention from the media outlets. President Goami concluded that the news media never tells the real situation in Fukushima. The prefecture is safer to live in than ever since the nuclear plant accident occurred.
I speculate that the flight company decided not to send its airplane to Fukushima not based on scientific knowledge, but based on a misguided conjecture. Given that even the media outlets in Japan, except for local media like Fukushima Minyu, do not have a sincere attitude in reporting the current situation of Fukushima, it may be reasonable that people in other countries fail to reach the correct information.
His five-minute talk reminded me of the “Labeling Theory,” which was set up by anthropologist Howard S. Becker. This theory was formulated based on the experiment planned and conducted by psychologist David L. Rosenhan. The study examined the impact of psychiatry hospital admissions among the healthy pseudo-patients on the attitude of health workers. In the experiment, eight pseudo-patients pretended as if they had suffered from auditory hallucinations when speaking to doctors, and consequently all of them were admitted to the hospital. Although they behaved quite sanely after their admission, they were coped with and treated as psychiatric patients. These results were published in “Science,” one of the most influential journals in the world.
Dr. Becker concluded that the observed findings can be attributed to the fact that health workers were likely to attach the label of “psychiatric patients” to “healthy pseudo-patients.” Once healthy people were labelled like this, even medical professionals regarded them as real psychiatric patients.
I felt a serious concern that Fukushima was labelled as a quite dangerous place to live in because of the post-disaster contamination by the radioactive agents. It may take a long time to dispel this type of misunderstanding, yet I expect that the media outlets in Japan would play a major role in disseminating the correct information about the reality of Fukushima all around the globe.
1. Rosenhan DL. On being sane in insane places. Science. 1973; 179 (4070): 250-8.