It had all the makings of a “where-were-you-when-this-hit” moment.
Live pictures of tsunamis pounding the coast. Boats tossed around like helpless corks in harbors. A powerful slide of debris blanketing farms at breakneck speed. Japan, no stranger to seismic suffering, had been hit by its biggest-ever earthquake.
It was all over the newsroom’s monitors as I came in to start my shift. Everyone was glued to CNN. CCTV-4 responded quickly. The young woman anchoring did a fine job, ad-libbing the live pictures as a studio expert of some description gave rolling commentary. They also ran a live feed from Japan’s state broadcaster NHK, complete with a news ticker in Japanese, no doubt aware that viewers could interpret some of the language’s common usage of Chinese characters.
CCTV’s English channel was a little slower off the mark, still showing a rebroadcast documentary an hour after the quake hit. Then, it too picked up NHK’s live feed from the broadcaster’s English channel. CCTV scrambled to get in touch with its Japanese correspondent, Terrence Terashima, as well as an American stringer, Dan Sloan, in Tokyo. Put on the spot with breaking news still unfolding, both provided sound accounts of what was happening and, admirably, resisted over-selling the story by speculating on the final scale of devastation.
CCTV News later followed suit with its Chinese language counterparts by having the Japanese language NHK feed translated. By a stroke of luck, there was a Chinese staff member who understood Japanese, but who’s English was limited. The solution? Translate the Japanese broadcast to Chinese, then have a Chinese writer translate the Chinese to English live on air. It wasn’t seamless and there were inevitable moments of dead air, but it was effective given the circumstances.
Of course, vision is the most effective means of communication in this day and age of 21st century media. NHK, for its part, was excellent. Their English channel provided powerful pictures of the quake’s aftermath, including fires at oil refineries and wild seas pounding the northeast coast. The most harrowing vision came from a camera crew aboard a helicopter that showed residents in houses waving towels to get their attention for help. What can you do? Rescue efforts are best left to the professionals. Plus, in such a cramped helicopter, how do you pick the select few to save, even if you could carry out the rescue safely?
China is no stranger to earthquakes. Disasters including 2008 in Sichuan, 2010 in Qinghai and, much more recently, this week in Yunnan have, unfortunately, put it in good stead to cope with relief operations. Hopefully, as it did in New Zealand and Haiti, China can lend a hand to its Asian neighbor in its hour of need.
China’s reporting of natural disasters or unrest beyond its borders inevitably involves updates on the safety of Chinese nationals. I know this is the role of a national broadcaster and, indeed, a key interest for a large proportion of its Chinese viewers. But it can sometimes skew values and priorities. What makes any the nationality of any victim more important than another? Thankfully, the focus of coverage on Japan’s quake victims was on their condition, not their passports.