Millions of lives saved by good government in Japan

Headlines for Japan Earthquake Tsunami 2011

Others have duly noted that the day’s headline should have been: “Millions saved in Japan by good engineering and government.” (RT @akhilak: RT @tmsruge RE @daveewing) However, take a look at the top actual Google news headlines from March 12, 2011 – one day after the 8.9 earthquake:

None of the top stories today or yesterday highlight the amazing number of lives saved by the work Japan’s government has done since 1996 to prepare for disasters like these.  (Thanks to Time Magazine)

Japan learned from it’s mistakes in the 1996 Kobe earthquake. They spent 15 years and $500 million to build the world’s best early warning system for earthquakes (which also predicts tsunamis). This system came online in 2007 and provided the country with a one-minute advance warning yesterday. My friend Mari has noted that conservatives just proposed to cut this same system in the USA (Source: MS-NBC, who would probably add the snarky comment that West-Coasters are liberals, and therefore barely American citizens in the eyes of conservatives… (see my comments on journalistic-narratives below))

I emphasize that Japan’s government, and thus their elected leaders, learned from mistakes. Not “regular hard working everyday Americans” or corporations. Sometimes governments do accomplish something and save countless lives. Yesterday no trains got derailed because they shut down instantly. No nuclear reactors spewed toxic radiation into the air*. You can’t privatize this kind of systematic prevention system.

*[Added 3 days after the quake: It’s now likely one of the 5 nuclear reactors will fail. I still stand by my claim of good governance. This earthquake was 80 times larger than the one last year  in Haiti. (The correct way to compare earthquakes is this formula 10^8.9/10^7.0 = 79.43) I would rather have to deal with a nuclear failure in Japan than in any other country, because I trust their government more to be prepared. I simply don’t believe reactors can’t be built to survive such a massive earthquake (9.0 or above), so I’m still impressed that the fallout is minimal. 1 out of 5 nuclear reactors are failing and the other 4 came through okay.]

In contrast – most of the damage and fire are affecting privately owned factories, storage facilities, and industrial processing centers. These non-government-owned for-profit companies are most efficient at one thing: generating immediate, short-term financial returns for investors. They can eat their losses, or their insurance companies can – but people cannot. Governments must work to secure the lives and safety of citizens.

Sometimes a government can overspend on this, but today most Japanese would agree that their government spent wisely. Some of that extra money budgeted in our US budget goes to similar agencies, like NOAA, that produce stunning predictions on a global scale like this tsunami forecast:

And now they’ll be asked to forecast a possible nuclear wind:

This worst-case scenario map provides us with 10 days to evacuate the affected areas. Could America manage to coordinate something so big? I wonder.

Journalists, stories, and fact-finding

Clearly, the news — like a suspense novelist – is driven by a conflict narrative. Often, I feel like stories conform to a preconceived narrative, a mental scaffolding to which journalists selectively attach information like tinsel to a Christmas tree. Such methods prevent newsroom perspectives from diverging.

These are some convenient assumptions lazy journalists start with:

  • this story can be told using the same two ideological divisions used in previous stories
  • all stories have multiple sides, and therefore require equal coverage regardless of each perspective’s merit
  • the most articulate and accessible people are the best sources
  • the story can be explained either 250, 500, or 1000 word chunks
  • this story cannot contradict yesterday’s news story

Journalists talk about “the story” and not “the evidence.” This reflects their internal compass – that stories are fit to print, and information has little value until it is wrapped in a story.

If new media is looking for a profit-making-news-model, I suggest you look at how you can fill in these information gaps cost-effectively. Publishing opinions and calling them news is clearly a money-losing venture. It will remain so, until some other entity (like Reuters or the Associated Press, but with more reporters around the world writing more facts and fewer interpretations) provides a stream of knowledge.

Or perhaps some day twitter will provide a general global news information service, that is improved plus a using a veracity filter like Swift River. Demonstration of Swift River follows (click to test):

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15 thoughts on “Millions of lives saved by good government in Japan

  1. Great post Marc.
    To me, the dominant narrative scaffolding (as you put it) in these stories is that of the tragedy, where the protagonist (in this case the Japanese people) suffer a terrible fate which is totally unexpected. However, the reality, as you have pointed out, was that through prudent investment in an early-warning system, people actually had advance notice of what has always been a quintessentially tragic event – the earthquake. Emphasizing this minor detail in mainstream stories would undermine the essence of the tragedy – that it was an unexpected event bringing great suffering. It would be akin to Oedipus having some sort of ‘advance warning device’ that informed him that he was about to kill his father, thus averting the tragedy – who would be interested in this story? The question is, can our news transcend these typical narrative frameworks given their pervasiveness in how humans think about themselves and the world around them? Thanks for the thought provoking post and keep them coming.

  2. I remember when I was in school watching videos this was all I was thinking while watching them I was like awwwwwww I feel so bad

  3. they had a 10 minute warning of the tsunami – but that would not have prevented a nuclear reactor that was built to the wrong design specifications. IT just allowed people to evacuate to higher ground if they got the message in time.

    As noted – high speed trains stopped immediately during the earthquake to prevent derailment.

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