Fukushima, from Fear to Fact

In the wake of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, rampant misinformation fueled high levels of public fear. Given that stress can be as harmful as its source, if not more so, a trustworthy veracity rating for information about major public-health crises can help to minimize the damage.

BANGKOK – Masao Yoshida had been the chief manager of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant for just nine months when, on March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami triggered a triple nuclear reactor meltdown. The plant spewed radioactive material into the air and water, terrifying the Japanese public and much of the world. Yoshida’s death last week from cancer under the pall of that nuclear disaster brings to mind how vulnerable facts can be to distortion.

In the accident’s wake, a lack of trustworthy information – and an abundance of misinformation – fueled fear among the public, both in Japan and abroad. As we learned from the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents, stress can be at least as harmful as the radiation exposure itself. Thus, a veracity rating in the same spirit as The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, which rates the reliability of politicians’ statements in “Pinocchio” units, may help to save lives in future public-health crises.

A fearful public quickly lost confidence in official communications channels after repeated failures, and people looked instead to the news media for information. But, as it turned out, the media could not be relied on fully, either, with even the most respected outlets unnecessarily feeding public anxiety.

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