How the earthquake kickstarted social media at Japanese newspapers

by James Breiner
Oct 30, 2018 in Miscellaneous

Japan's newspapers expanded their role of serving the community by using social media in the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011.

Yoichi Nishimura, former managing editor of Asahi Shimbun, with daily circulation of 8 million, said news organizations cooperated to share information about missing persons with a Google database so families could find loved ones.

"For the first time, there was a large-scale joint effort between social media and the traditional mass media," Nishimura told an audience at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The news media spread disaster-related information through social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

New journalism training

Nishimura said journalism is transforming from a one-way “lecture” at readers to a “conversation” with them. Many news organizations are expanding the reach of their services by contacting readers through means such as Twitter and Facebook.

"Journalists need to be trained in new literacy, for example, mastering how to discern truths amid the flood of information and the concrete steps of that process," he said.

In addition, journalists need to provide research, context and explanation of what is happening on the social networks. "Facebook postings and tweets often contain expressions of anger and exasperation. These in themselves are important information. But the remarks do not explain the reasons behind the anger, whether such exasperation is valid or not, or, in the case of the anger being valid, what the reasoning behind that stance is.

"We need to instruct our journalists to not only pick up on anger in cyberspace but also to have the ability to analyze the reasoning behind such frustration."

Media create community

For Nishimura, one of the lessons of the earthquake was to reinforce the importance of news media in creating community. People in the central areas of the quake were searching for reliable information as they had no TV or Internet access due to power outages, and their cell phone batteries were dying out. When the newspapers were delivered to the evacuation shelters, people practically scrambled to obtain them, some in tears as they read.

Here, the newspapers functioned to allow the evacuees to feel that they were indeed a part of the rest of society. As a source of information, the newspapers were part of the lifeline, just like electricity, gas and water.

I received a letter from one reader that said, “When I read the Asahi Shimbun by candlelight at the evacuation shelter right after the earthquake, I felt a connection with the rest of the world.”

This post originally appeared on the blog News Entrepreneurs and was posted on IJNet with permission.

James Breiner is co-director of the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University. He is a former Knight International Journalism Fellow who launched and directed the Center for Digital Journalism at the University of Guadalajara. He is bilingual in Spanish and English and is a consultant in online journalism and leadership.