On March 11, 2011, the northeastern coast of Japan was struck by 9.0-magnitude earthquake that triggered a devastating tsunami. Aside from the huge toll in people’s lives and severe damages to property, the tremor sent the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on a tailspin, causing hydrogen explosions in three reactors, and sending radioactive materials into the air and bodies of water. Declared the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, the crisis threatened neighboring countries, including China (International Business Times, 2011). On March 28, low levels of iodine-131, cesium-137 and strontium, believed to have drifted from Japan, were detected in the air over Heilongjiang province in the northeast part of China and in seawater samples collected in the eastern coastal areas (Qianjiang Eve News, 2011). Because these chemicals can enter the food chain and adversely affect human health (Ifeng.com, 2011), people became understandably anxious and the government had to avert panic. This study asks: How did the Chinese media report the risks attendant to this event?

A content analysis of 45 straight news reports published by the Chinese press from March 16, 2011 to April 25, 2011 was conducted. The analysis focused on how the media explained the risk, portrayed potential harm, reported on government actions to safeguard public health, and provided suggestions to reduce public fear. The sources of information cited in the reports were also identified. The articles examined were collected from People.com, a comprehensive online archive of news reports, using “Fukushima” and “nuclear radiation” as search terms.

The results indicated journalistic practices that left much to be desired in terms of risk reporting. First, the articles explained little about the technical aspects of the radiation leaks and failed to give audiences a general indication of levels of risk. Second, the media over-emphasized the government’s position that the environment was safe despite the more rampant word-of-mouth reports to the contrary, a slant that may have done nothing to allay public fear. Third, there was a dearth of information about what the government intends to do to alleviate the situation and suggestions about what people can do to protect themselves. The themes of news reports may be attributed to experts from research institutions and government officials who were the most frequently cited sources of facts, analyses, interpretations, and opinions. Scientists and nuclear experts were cited the most in the news reports.

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