By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Did the Times overstate Japan’s nuke crisis?

It was a week ago today that the New York Times ran this lede:

Japan faced the likelihood of a catastrophic nuclear accident Tuesday morning, as an explosion at the most crippled of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station damaged its crucial steel containment structure, emergency workers were withdrawn from the plant, and much larger emissions of radioactive materials appeared imminent, according to official statements and industry executives informed about the developments.

The headline, which led that night: “Japan Faces Potential Nuclear Disaster as Radiation Levels Rise.”

We can all be grateful that the worst hasn’t happened. It appears that the nuclear situation in Japan, despite continued setbacks, may slowly be coming under control. So my question this morning is whether the Times grossly overstated what was happening on that scary night.

A news organization should not lightly assert “the likelihood of a catastrophic nuclear accident.”

Discover more from Media Nation

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.


Censors at Apple asked to censor


Social media and journalism


  1. Mike Benedict

    Considering they still aren’t out of the woods, and the Times made clear in the lede it was quoting informed officials, I think it was an appropriate hed.

  2. That was my take on it at the time. I wondered if some National Enquirer editors hadn’t snuck into the Times newsroom overnight. Talk about going sensational.

  3. Christian Avard

    I’m with Mike Benedict on this one. I’d also recommend people check out this video from Arnie Gundersen of Fairwinds Associates. Gundersen has been on TV shows across the country most notably on Democracy Now, Vermont Public Radio, CNN, Russia Today, and others.

    I’m not so sure the situation is coming under control. Gundersen explains why.

  4. Ron Newman

    Overstated? No, given that there are at least four reactors in trouble, and the situation is not yet under full control.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Ron, @Christian and @Mike: Here’s my problem with the Times’ coverage, which maybe I didn’t state clearly enough in the item. The story would lead a careful (or non-careful) reader to believe that a meltdown had become unavoidable and that everyone was fleeing the plant. Although I agree with you that we are a long way from being out of the woods, I’d argue that if the Times’ story had been accurate, the world would now be celebrating a miracle that the worst had somehow been averted.

  5. Mike Benedict

    @Dan: Seems like it all hinges on one’s definition of “potential.” I look at “potential” as a word that means “could happen.” Since a cynic would argue anything could happen and thus “potential” is inherently suggested, by extension they might conclude the use here suggests something closer to inevitability. I don’t see anything here as so dramatic, though.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike: The word potential appears in the headline, but what I’m focusing on is the word that’s in the lede: likelihood. This being the Times rather than the New York Post, there’s an instinct to play things down in the headline. Might even have been unchanged from an earlier, less frightening version of the story.

  6. L.K. Collins

    A good part of the problem lies in the fact that a reporter or an editor sitting in New York has little feel for how quickly technical disasters can be first contained, and then brought under control. This type of incident does not get turned on or off with a switch.

    Had the reporter explored the question of what steps were needed for containment and control, a misimpression culd have been avoided.

    The Times’ editorialization here is based on uninformed expectations. For that they should be criticized.

  7. Mike Benedict

    @LK: You’re wrong. Read to the end of the graf.

    @Dan: OK, I see your point. There are better words than “likelihood” they could have used, ones that could have described the worst possible outcome with less confidence.

  8. L.K. Collins

    I doubt seriously Mikey, that you or the NYT has any idea as to how long it takes to cool-down a nuclear reactor in a functioning state let alone a damaged one.

  9. Mike Rice

    @ Mike: “The likelihood of Japan averting a catastrophic nuclear accident at this time remains tenuous.”

  10. Mike Benedict

    @LK: Nice reading comprehension there.

    Neither I nor the Times gave our opinions on the matter. That’s what “according to official statements and industry executives informed about the developments” means.

    And for god’s sake, please wear a mask when you use the Speedball Mona Lisa. It’s not for inhaling, and we need you around here for laughs.

  11. Christian Avard

    Got it, Dan. Thanks.

  12. Michael Pahre

    I followed your link to an earlier post on this topic, and then followed your link in that post to the NYT article in question.

    The lede you refer to, including the word “likelihood,” do not appear in that article.

    Googling on the exact phrase in the opening of your excerpt, and following some links, shows that some links to the phrasing still show up using that wording, but following them to the article in question points to the wording having been changed.

    Methinks the NYT addressed this problem already. Quite possibly did it quite quickly.

    If so, do you still have a problem with the NYT?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Michael: First of all, some good comments have been getting stuck in the spam filter lately, including yours. So apologies for the delay.

      My memory was that the likelihood wording survived the night and reappeared on Tuesday morning, when I would have seen it again in Times Reader. Unfortunately, my access to the March 15 Times Reader expired today — you only get a week’s worth.

      I just checked a database that is supposed to reflect what was in the print edition, and here is the lede:

      TOKYO — Japan’s nuclear crisis verged toward catastrophe on Tuesday after an explosion damaged the vessel containing the nuclear core at one reactor and a fire at another spewed large amounts of radioactive material into the air, according to the statements of Japanese government and industry officials.

      I understand that it was a very fast-breaking story. If the likelihood construction was just a fleeting characterization online, then that is less of a lapse than if the Times had stuck with that wording. But it also shows that the editors themselves realized they were overstating things.

  13. Mike Stucka

    I have to say, I vehemently disagree.

    That may well have been an accurate picture at the time. “Likelihood” suggests it would be more likely to happen than not, but 60 percent is not 99 percent.

    The fact that the worst hasn’t happened, yet, doesn’t mean The Times got the story wrong. It may mean we were lucky enough to have that 40 percent.

    No one here has presented any evidence that The Times “lightly” asserted anything.

    And had the worst happened, no doubt someone would be picking on all the media that underplayed the disaster potential.

    Media criticism should not be done in an absence of fact. All we have are an assertion of probability. And then there’s a question of judgment about the catastrophe — if water and food supplies are contaminated what, 50 miles away, that sure sounds like a catastrophe to me.

    If The Times were truly trying to overhype, this quote would have appeared near the top:
    “We are on the brink. We are now facing the worst-case scenario,” said Hiroaki Koide, a senior reactor engineering specialist at the Research Reactor Institute of Kyoto University. “We can assume that the containment vessel at Reactor No. 2 is already breached. If there is heavy melting inside the reactor, large amounts of radiation will most definitely be released.”

    And that’s from an expert, not a whackjob at a lobbying firm.

  14. Al Fiantaca

    I think the Times presented the story in the way they did for much the same reason that TV weather people describe a coming snow in the worst possible terms, which is to get attention in a market crowded with options for news. I think they did overstate the conditions at the time, choosing likelihood instead of possibility, because of its impact on potential readers. That kind of thing happens all the time, and regular news readers keep it in mind when reading news while trying to get informed of important issues.

  15. C.E. Stead

    DK – substitute ‘possibility’ for ‘likelihood’ and it goes away.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @C.E.: Agreed. But I assume you’re not saying that the difference between possibility and likelihood is trivial.

  16. L.K. Collins

    “…the editors themselves realized they were overstating things.” — Dan Kennedy

    I guess that leaves just Mikey who isn’t convinced.

  17. Michael Pahre

    While I am no expert on how newsrooms work, I would hazard a guess that the online version had only passed by a low-level editor. Then, later that day, as they were assembling content for the print edition, a higher-level editor saw the red flags in the lede that you saw and demanded a rewrite.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with the NYT using the word “likelihood” — as long as they are attributing it to one or more well-regarded experts in the field. In such a case the headline would have to include “expert,” though — such as, “Japan reactor will likely explode, expert says” — and the NYT would have to weigh the quality of that expert in deciding to report (if at all!) just that one opinion as a big news story.

    The sourcing in their original story, however, didn’t line up with how they wrote the text. That’s the problem, and it’s a good case study for the journalism students to dissect…

    -Yer Spammer

  18. Mike Benedict

    @LK: What, exactly, do you think “according to official statements and industry executives informed about the developments” means?

    And please, no inhaling the antiquing agents before you respond!

  19. L.K. Collins

    You need, Mikey, to stop inhaling your own press relaeses.

  20. Mike Saunders

    I’m no cheerleader for the Times, but the online editions of a fast-moving story are rarely edited to the rigorous standards of the print edition. That’s just the way the 24-hour news cycle works. Stories are posted as quickly as reasonably possible, with three or four sets of eyes on the copy — and yes, sometimes they’re reeled back for fixes or to change tone, or to recast a lede.

    This is exactly what media critics have been saying needs to happen for years, and now that it’s here, what’s with the mass kvetching?

    The alarmist language was tamped down by cooler heads, but there was no deliberate Fox-esque fanfare of doom in the original version, just a dire assessment that appears to be more on-target with each passing day.

    If anything, the Times and other media (I’ve been following the BBC’s excellent reporting almost as closely) have been actively out front on this story.

  21. Now that we are a week after the original posting, do you still feel that the headline was too strong or have the event just happened to follow the predicition of the article? Did they guess or did they get it right?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Robert: It was a right-then-and-there situation, so no, I’m still not comfortable with the headline.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén