News coverage of Fukushima disaster found few reports identified health risks to public

March 10, 2016

Five years after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, the disaster no longer dominates U.S. news headlines, although experts say it is a continuing disaster with broad implications. A new analysis by American University sociology professor Celine-Marie Pascale finds that U.S. news media coverage following the disaster minimized health risks to the general population.

Pascale analyzed more than 2,000 news articles from four major U.S. outlets following the disaster's occurrence from March 11, 2011 through March 11, 2013. Only 6 percent of the coverage—129 articles—focused on to the public in Japan or elsewhere. Human risks were framed, instead, in terms of workers in the disabled nuclear plant. Pascale's research has published in the flagship journal for the International Sociology Association, Current Sociology.

Disproportionate access

"It's shocking to see how few articles discussed risk to the general population, and when they did, they typically characterized risk as low," said Pascale, who studies the social construction of risk and meanings of risk in the 21st century. "We see articles in prestigious news outlets claiming that radioactivity from cosmic rays and rocks is more dangerous than the radiation emanating from the collapsing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant."

Pascale studied news articles, editorials, and letters to the editor from two newspapers, The Washington Post and The New York Times, and two nationally prominent online news sites, Politico and The Huffington Post. These four media outlets are among the most prominent in the United States. They also are among the most cited by television news, talk shows, other newspapers, social media and blogs Pascale said.

Nuclear disasters have potentially large-scale and long-term consequences for people, environments, and economies around the globe. Given limited public knowledge about the details of nuclear energy and encumbered access to disaster sites, the media have disproportionate power around the globe to shape public knowledge, perception, and reaction to nuclear crises, Pascale said. Pascale's article illustrates how systematic media practices minimized the presence of health risks, contributed to misinformation, and exacerbated uncertainties.

Pascale's analysis initially characterized the risk to the general population in one of three ways: low, uncertain, or high. However, when examining the bases on which these characterizations were made, it was clear that all media characterizations of uncertain risk were subsequently interpreted as evidence of low risk. In two years of reporting, across all four media outlets, there were only a combined total of 17 articles reporting any noteworthy risk from the largest nuclear disaster in history.

Corporations and government agencies had disproportionate access to framing the event in the media, Pascale says. Even years after the disaster, government and corporate spokespersons constituted the majority of voices published. News accounts about local impact—for example, parents organizing to protect their children from radiation in school lunches—were also scarce.

Globalization of risk

Pascale says her findings show the need for the public to be critical consumers of ; expert knowledge can be used to create misinformation and uncertainty—especially in the information vacuums that arise during disasters.

"The mainstream media—in print and online—did little to report on health risks to the or to challenge the narratives of public officials and their experts," Pascale said. "Discourses of the risks surrounding disasters are political struggles to control the presence and meaning of events and their consequences. How knowledge about disasters is reported can have more to do with relations of power than it does with the material consequences to people's lives."

While it is clear that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown was a consequence of an earthquake and tsunami, like all disasters, it was also the result of political, economic and social choices that created or exacerbated broad-scale risks. In the 21st century, there's an increasing "globalization of risk," Pascale argues.

"People's understanding of disasters will continue to be constructed primarily by media. How members frame the presence of and the nature of disaster has enormous consequence for our well-being," she said.

Explore further: Framework may help improve use of social media during disasters

Related Stories

Fukushima: Reflections six months on

September 20, 2011

When the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on March 11, 2011, the world witnessed the largest nuclear incident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. In a special Fukushima ...

Recommended for you

Ancient parrot fossil found in Siberia

October 26, 2016

(—A Russian paleontologist has discovered a parrot fossil uncovered in Siberia several years ago—the first evidence of parrots living in Asia. In his paper published in Biology Letters, Nikita Zelenkov describes ...

Ancient burials suggestive of blood feuds

October 24, 2016

There is significant variation in how different cultures over time have dealt with the dead. Yet, at a very basic level, funerals in the Sonoran Desert thousands of years ago were similar to what they are today. Bodies of ...

Meet Savannasaurus, Australia's newest titanosaur

October 21, 2016

The outback region around Winton in central Queensland is arguably Australia's ground zero for giant dinosaur fossils. Here, graziers occasionally stumble across petrified bones on their paddocks, amid the stubbly grass and ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Mar 10, 2016
"It's shocking to see how few articles discussed risk to the general population, and when they did, they typically characterized risk as low,"

If there is very little risk to the general population, why would there be articles saying there is?

"Nuclear disasters have potentially large-scale and long-term consequences for people, environments, and economies around the globe."

Fukushima was turned into a disaster by the fear mongers. Like Chernobyl, the mafia will milk it for all they can.

5 / 5 (1) Mar 10, 2016
The amount of cesium-137 that was released into the atmosphere by Fukushima Daiichi's Units 1, 2, and 3 was 168 times that of the Hiroshima bomb, according to the Japanese government report to the International Atomic Energy Agency. This is an underestimate. Around 400 to 500 times the amount of cesium-137 dispersed by the Hiroshima atomic bomb has since been dispersed into the atmosphere due to the accident at Fukushima Daiichi. At the same time, almost the same amount of radioactive material has dissolved into water, flowing into theground and into the ocean. (Koide, 2015: Loc 334–338)

In 2012, researchers in Tokyo found cesium on children's shoes. 'Children tie their shoes; children eat with their hands; this means the cesium is in their stomachs, in their guts, in their intestines' (Gundersen, 2015: Loc 1449). Yet the health consequences of exposure are not immediate. The incubation time for leukemia is 5–10 years; for solid cancers, it is 15–80
5 / 5 (1) Mar 10, 2016
'Power companies, supported by the government aggressively marketed a "mythology of safety," originally to assure local communities and broader public opinion about the safety of the nuclear plant' (Kushida, Downloaded from at Flinders University on March 10, 2016 Pascale 5 2012: 47). Similarly, Downer (2014) argued that public narratives of the Fukushima disaster typically framed it in ways that allowed risk-assessment experts to construct the disaster as an anomaly.
5 / 5 (1) Mar 10, 2016
First, it is worth recalling that the media in this study vastly under-reported the issue; only 0.06% of articles about the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster even mentioned risk to the general population. Second, none the 65 articles considered the specific and cumulative effects of cesium-137, strontium-90, or other radioactive chemicals that were known to be released by the catastrophe. Nor did any mention the troubles tracking the development of cancer over the life spans of a dispersed population and their offspring.
5 / 5 (1) Mar 10, 2016
Rather, media accounts constructed this apparent lack of knowledge as evidence of minimal risk. At no point did uncertainty provide grounds to consider potentially high or even significant risks – even though long-term exposure to radiation is generally associated with an increased risk of cancers, cataracts, brain seizures, heart problems as well as damage to reproductive and lymphatic systems. Precisely because increases in cancer and disease will unfold over generations, it will be difficult to trace any of them directly to the Fukushima disaster.
While one might reasonably expect uncertainties to prevail just months after the disaster, the media continued to construct public health risks in terms of insufficient knowledge and scientific uncertainty through the second anniversary, when this data collection ended.
5 / 5 (1) Mar 12, 2016
Dr. Alex Rosen, MD, Vice-chair, IPPNW Germany Catherine Thomasson, MD, Executive Director, PSR (USA)


When we are talking about the affected population in Japan, we differentiate between four sub-groups:

• More than 25,000 cleanup and rescue workers received the highest radiation dose and risked their health, while preventing a deterioration of the situation at the power plant site. If data supplied by the operator TEPCO is to be believed, around 100 workers are expected to contract cancer due to excess radiation, and 50% of these will be fatal. The real dose levels, however, are most likely several times higher, as the operator has had no qualms in manipulating the data to avoid claims for damages – from hiring unregistered temporary employees to tampering with radiation dosimeters and even crude forgery.
5 / 5 (1) Mar 12, 2016
• The evacuated population numbering 200,000, which was initially exposed to considerable radiation doses, now mostly lives outside Fukushima prefecture.

• Populations not evacuated from irradiated areas are still being exposed to increased radiation doses every day.

• The population in the rest of Japan is exposed to increased radiation doses from minor amounts of radioactive fallout, as well as contaminated food and water. Calculations of increased cancer cases overall in Japan range from 9,600 to 66,000 depending on the dose estimates.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.