Recently, two nuclear- related matters, one in India, and the other in Japan gave a chance to compare ethics in journalism practiced in these two countries.
For Asahi Shimbun, a leading newspaper in Japan with a readership of 18.2 million, September 11, this year, was one of the saddest days.
On that day, Mr. Tadakazu Kimura, president of the Asahi Shimbun, and Nobuyuki Sugiura, executive editor, and Hisashi Yoshizono, director in charge of public affairs apologized to the readers of the daily at a news conference.
Mr. Kimura retracted an article which, the morning edition of the daily published on May 20, 2014.
The article reported on the testimony of Masao Yoshida, the plant manager of the stricken Unit 1 of the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Based on the testimony secured independently, before the Government itself publishing it, the daily ran a front page story which stated that “about 650 TEPCO and other workers, or 90 percent of the total number who were at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant on the morning of March 15, 2011, four days after the Great East Japan Earthquake, went against the order of Yoshida to wait for further instructions and withdrew to the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant 10 kilometers to the south.”
Later, the news paper management discovered that that there was no corroborating evidence for the headline or article contents related to “withdrawing against the order.” The article appeared to imply that many plant workers had fled while knowing about the order given by Yoshida. It was an unpardonable mistake
Kimura also apologized to individuals with ties to Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) which owned and operated the nuclear power plant.
He swiftly relieved Nobuyuki Susuira, the executive editor of the daily from his post. Kimura said that he himself would decide on whether to resign or not once he enforced steps to regain the confidence of the readers. He declared that he would not accept any salary during the period.
Realizing the seriousness of the issues, the Asahi management asked the Press and Human Rights Committee, an internal third-party organ, to conduct an examination of the entire matter.
None of this occurred when a leading Mumbai daily published a grossly damaging, incorrect nuclear-related news story.
On September 7, the newspaper published an article titled” Cancer behind 70%deaths in India’s atomic energy hubs”. The report claimed that cancer caused almost 70% of the 3,887 health-related deaths in the atomic energy hubs across the country over the last 20 years. The daily claimed that it arrived at this conclusion based on responses from the units of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to RTI queries. The report noted that 2,600 succumbed to cancer in 19 centres between 1995 and 2014.
The daily also reported that in Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), there were 255 suicides in the same period, meaning an average of almost one every month over 20 years. The daily characterized this as “a shocking revelation”.
These were wrong statements.
“The number of deaths of DAE employees in service over the period of 1995 to 2014 is around 2600.Out of these the number of deaths reported due to cancer-related causes is less than 200 (less than 10%)”, DAE insisted. There was nothing unusual about such death rates.
“As regards the number of suicides of employees in service, the data reported by the Units of DAE for the period 1995 to 2014 indicate less than 100 cases” DAE asserted.
DAE argued that the statements in the daily do not reflect the information given by DAE Units to RTI queries.
The news story contained grossly exaggerated numbers of deaths, cancer deaths and suicides.
The sensational report has the potential to do infinite damage to our nation’s nuclear energy programme. It may create unwanted fear among those who have recently joined and who plan to join the Department of Atomic Energy.
DAE sent messages after messages stating the factual position. DAE requested the daily to publish its version prominently.
“DAE has reasons to believe that the information on the number of DAE employees undergoing treatment for different types of illness or ailment, provided by a couple of Units of DAE in their responses to the RTI query of Shri C. Kothari in 2014, has been recklessly counted as deaths of employees , and tabulated for circulation.” DAE revealed in a press release on September 18, 2014″
Evidently, the story was based on a genuine goof up! Possibility of some legal action loomed large. The Mumbai daily ignored DAE’s pleas till 26th October when it published a news item titled “Corrections and clarifications” inconspicuously.
The terse TOI response was inadequate to undo the incalculable damage done by its earlier story.
A responsible step for the daily was to explain the goof up.
The contrast in ethical practices by newspapers in Japan and India is evident
This writer does not exonerate the behaviour of scientists either. They must appreciate the demands on journalists and provide correct inputs promptly. The reporters at the Mumbai daily blindly trusted the RTI enthusiast. Journalists like scientists should develop healthy skepticism when someone makes outlandish claims.
Journalists and scientists must meet over a cup of tea, exchange notes, scrutinize records and try to see what went wrong. They should publicize the way they resolved the issues. This writer knows that DAE serves good tea! The Mumbai daily may not be far behind in its hospitality.
Journalists and scientists must establish cordial relations based on mutual respect and set up transparent mechanisms to exchange information. There are many sensitive areas in which the damage done will be irreparable if any hasty action is taken. The nation cannot afford costly, meaningless controversies.
All is not lost in scientists-media relations. The ASIANET NEWS carried the offending news story as a video clip. When this writer brought the factual position to its notice, the agency deleted the YouTube clip promptly and with admirable alacrity.