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Nicholson '12.5: Tsunami! Fear-mongering in international media

As Bill Maher quipped on last week's "Real Time with Bill Maher," lackluster tsunami waves in California "pose a great danger to making everything about us." As always, the comedian-pundit jokes at the expense of big media outlets. Yet this time, his criticism rings true.

Finding myself in California a little over a week ago, I was bombarded by news reports containing tsunami alerts and live footage of the coasts of Big Sur, Calif. Waves swelled, and a couple of boats tipped over. Meanwhile, in the tsunami-stricken Sendai area in Japan, people were dying by the thousands. Surprisingly enough, this news was secondary. What gives, CNN?

Needless to say, this is not the first time big media outlets have pulled such pranks on the American public. Last year, I spent the spring semester in Hawaii. Following the earthquakes in Chile that February, the state of Hawaii was subject to tsunami warnings. Alarms sounded throughout the islands. I loaded my car with non-perishables. And then, after traveling to higher ground, I took a nature hike.

In Hawaii, the locals knew immediately that, while the waves would technically qualify as tsunamis, they would not even destroy the low-laying areas. In fact, despite all of my vehement protests, many of my friends went surfing that very day. Nevertheless, major news outlets were dominated by panic-stricken reports of the tsunami that may or may not wipe out the 50th state.

As is the case with the earthquake in Japan, these reports are largely fear-mongering on the part of the international media circuit. When the American public thinks of tsunamis, they think of devastation on the same scale as Louisiana or Thailand — carnage to an unprecedented extent. And yet, what my American peers do not understand is that a tsunami is defined as any body of water displaced by an earthquake or an underwater volcanic eruption — not necessarily one that causes mass death or destruction.

The news reports, as mentioned previously, painted a distinctly different picture. At home on the mainland, my mom left frantic, tearful messages on my voice mail, and my friends at Brown sent anxious texts. Meanwhile, in Hawaii, the situation was nothing more than another beautiful day when no one had to work.

As was the case with the Chilean earthquake in the beginning of 2010, American media outlets caused panic when no panic was due. What should be the focus of news coverage — the destruction in foreign countries — becomes secondary to strictly American concerns. On the one hand, I feel international news bureaus continue to underestimate our ability to be sympathetic. And yet, on the other hand, they consistently misconceive our overall interest in what is going on around the world.

In the case of the most recent earthquake, we should be concerned for the Japanese people, not for ourselves. While such a conclusion seems obvious to me, reporting in the U.S. remains, predictably, completely self-centered. One of our immediate concerns has been the stability of Japan's nuclear reactors, which were damaged by the earthquake. Experts across the country confirm that the distance between Japan and the U.S. is simply too large for a nuclear cloud to cross. According to David Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University, those outside of the evacuation zone in Japan "are going to get doses … comparable to a chest X-ray." In other words, for those of us living in the U.S., radiation poisoning should be a non-issue. News broadcasts should be concentrating on relief efforts, not the unlikely event of nuclear disaster in Alaska.

On the home front, while issues at Brown constitute our primary concerns — as is only natural — we must remember at least to keep an eye on the television in the Brown Bookstore. We must remember to skim the New York Times from time to time. We must remember that life is bigger than College Hill.

As kids in America, let's stay aware of what's going on in the world, because, as much as we may protest, these events make up our future, our present and the course of the rest of our lives.

Lorraine Nicholson '12.5 is a literary arts concentrator from Los Angeles.



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