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International News Reports Now and Then By SHINICHIRO HAMAZAKI Information technology has changed how newspapers report the stories in dramatic ways. In this blog post, I’m going to compare the first reports of the New York Times on two big earthquakes that occurred in Japan in 1923 and 2011. By examining how the same topic was reported in the same newspaper now and then, the differences of the media environments in the early 20th and 21st century clearly show how information technology has changed (and not changed) news writing styles.

New York Times Mar. 11, 2011 online issue

20,000 people. It broke out at 2:46 p.m. Japan time, which was midnight at 0:46 a.m. (EST) on March 11th in New York. The first report on the New York Times online was released on the same day March 11th U.S. time, but the same article of the print edition was on the March 12th issue. These time spans now and then show that because of the feature of newspaper media, even today newspaper still takes a whole day to convey international news to the readers living on another side of the ocean. New York Times Sep. 2, 1923 issue

Possible news sources of natural disasters Time span of the news in 1923 and 2011

The other point that is very different between old and new

One of the most remarkable points singled out in the

reports is their news sources. Due to the characteristic of natural

comparison between the international reports of the historical

disasters, the news reporters, especially the small unit of foreign

earthquakes in Japan is the time spans the newspaper took to report

media which doesn’t have its own helicopter, couldn’t go to the

the disasters. The earthquake happened in 1923 is called Great

quake-hit area immediately and report what they actually see and

Kanto Earthquake. It was magnitude 7.9 and is now estimated to

hear there. Instead, they interviewed the witness or quoted the

have killed 105,000 people in the Kanto area of Japan including

news from other news sources. In the case of Tohoku Earthquake

Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, and Saitama prefectures. It started at

in 2011, the New York Times reporter took the latter way. All the

11:58 a.m. on September 1st Japan time, which was at 9:58 p.m.

information about the affected area was quoted from Japanese news

on August 31st (EST) in New York. The first report of the quake

media such as Mainichi Shinbun (newspaper), TV Asahi, Kyodo

turned up on the top page of the New York Times September 2nd

News, and NHK television. Some part of the article was based

issue (there were five articles about the quake in total). According

even on YouTube videos and Twitter messages. Another thing that

to the article, the news was first received on September 1st through

the New York Times correspondent did for writing the article was

the associated press and the next report came through radio from

to interview an American professor who happened to visit Tokyo

Japan at 8:20p.m. on September 1st U.S. time . it took almost a day

and ask him his personal experience during the quake. However,

since the quake occurred and another half-day was needed for the

many photos of the disaster were provided by the associate press

article to be delivered to the readers.

so that the readers could know what was going on at the suffered

Surprisingly, this time span it takes to deliver the news is not so

area then.

different from that of today. The biggest earthquake ever recorded

On the contrary, the reporters and editors of the New York

in Japan’s history struck on March 11th, 2011. The quake is called

Times in 1923 had very hard time to gather the information from

Tohoku Earthquake. It was a 9.0 magnitude and killed nearly

Japan. Because the cable connections between Guam and Tokyo


had been interrupted, the only report was sent by the station of Radio Corporation of America located in Japan. The correspondent seemed to live in “Tomioka,” which was “located in an isolated position 144 miles from Tokio” (This is probably Tomioka town in Fukushima prefecture in the north part of Japan). This correspondent said that he obtained all the information of the quake from a local newspaper. The New York Times itself admits in the article that the information was very limited saying that “Meagre reports received here indicate …” Instead, they focuses more on how difficult it was to get the information from Japan at that point saying that “Communication with Japan, interrupted by the earthquake at noon, Tokio time, today, was still virtually at a standstill twenty-six hours later.” What they do next is to fill the article with the general information about Tokyo and Yokohama (a big town next to Tokyo) to fill the page. For example, they explain Tokyo’s geographical features in detail. They begin with the history of Yokohama (e.g. the U.S. Commodore Perry came in 1853, etc.), describe where Asakusa and other areas are sited in Tokyo, and even introduce the sightseeing spots (e.g. “The view of the river mouth from the bridge is especially fine, and attracts many tourist,” “One of the best recreation grounds in Tokyo is Fukagawa Park.”) The description is so detailed that the reader may raise a question why the article has to be so in detail. They got most of the information from a former resident in Yokohama who then lived in the U.S. As a result, the article goes like “Mr. Austin was inclined to think

"Typical Yokohama" photo on New York Times Sep. 2, 1923 issue

but also show that the sources were very limited compared to those of today. To get to the disaster-hit area is probably still very difficult for foreign press even today, but the comparison above shows how various kinds of media are actually used as sources in the digital age. News vocabulary now and then The last difference that can be found in the comparison between old and new articles is about the vocabulary used in the old articles. Since they were written 88 years ago, some contain words that are no longer used in today’s newspaper. There are some old words such as “wrought” instead of “worked.” Different words are used to describe the same thing (“tidal wave” became “tsunami” and “breakwater” became “seawall.”) In the old articles, Tokyo was spelled like “Tokio.” The other interesting point regarding the expressions used in the article is the terms and comments which slightly contain racial and colonial perspectives. For example, when referring to the number of Americans living in Yokohama, the article goes like “… and of the 3,000 white foreigners some 700 are Americans …” The term “natives” are often used to describe local Japanese residents (e.g. “the richer natives are constructed on …”). Probably both expressions were quite normal in 1923, but we rarely see them on today’s newspaper any more. Little coincidence between two big earthquakes There are many differences in different aspects between the reports in the old time and today. Still there are same conditions

New York Times Sep. 3, 1923 issue

that cannot be changed even today — the feature that newspaper

…,” “… presumably suffered…” There are four photos of Tokyo

conveys the news of the day before and the difficulty for

and Yokohama on the top page, but all of them are not scenes of

foreign press to go to an affected site immediately. One of the

the quake, but typical street shots that show how the towns usually

most interesting things that I found through this research is the

were. There were some comments based on wrong information.

coincidence that the Tomioka, where the U.S. radio correspondent

For example, one of the articles’ headline says, “Earthquake

sent the first report of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, is

Centres in the Extinct Volcano of Fuji,” which was not true at all.

the very site where the Tohoku Earthquake hit in 2011 and the

All the details mentioned above show that the reporters and editors

correspondent of the New York Times in Tokyo must have wanted

of the New York Times at that time did what they could do then,

to go immediately to report the situation.

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