What Korean Media Can Learn from NHK's Disaster Coverage

Reporters with Japanese state broadcaster NHK always make sure to say before interviewing victims of natural disasters, "My heart goes out to the suffering you have endured" or "Don't be discouraged." NHK reporters must gain permission of victims before filming them and eat their packed lunches in their cars, away from the view of victims. And they always use mobile phones, because public phones must be left free for victims to use. These are only part of strict guidelines in NHK's disaster reporting manual.

The manual contains detailed instructions on how to cover natural disasters. Anchors and reporters are prohibited from using expressions such as "massive," "severe" or "fierce" to prevent viewers from panicking. Earthquakes can be described using expressions like "significant tremor" or "strong earthquake." Unclear or exaggerated language based on conjecture is also prohibited.

Since it is a public institution operated with taxpayer money, NHK's goal during disaster coverage is to broadcast news fast and accurately. The aim of disaster reporting is to minimize the damage.

The NHK News Center conducts mock disaster coverage exercises every night, and NHK staff in charge of disaster coverage have to live within 5 km of the company's headquarters so they can come to work quickly in an emergency.

NHK's reporting stood out during the latest earthquake. As they reported on the disaster that left tens of thousands of people either dead or missing and made over 500,000 homeless, NHK calmly reported the news, without recourse to images of blazing fires or wailing victims. Instead, it repeatedly broadcast vital information for victims, such as the location of hospitals and the availability of water, electricity and gas.

The Korean media was more emotive, with both state-run and private media overflowing with terms like "destruction," "pandemonium," and "chaos." They reported that roads were "completely" disabled, while the tsunami was "hugely destructive," while "entire towns" disappeared. The fact that Japan has an exemplary state-run broadcaster probably played a large role in the orderly and calm response of the Japanese people.

By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Tae-ick

englishnews@chosun.com / Mar. 16, 2011 13:24 KST