Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – Media Responses to the Japan Earthquake

Red Cross flagIt’s been difficult to sift through all of the news coming out of Japan, especially as more news arrives every minute. Conflict reports on nuclear facilities are nonetheless troubling. Videos of the wreckage and photos of struggling survivors take your breath away.

Now scientists are saying the 8.9 magnitude quake moved Eastern Japan moved Japan 13 feet closer to the United States and shortened Earth’s day by about 1.6 microseconds. That doesn’t even sound like it should be possible, let alone something that massive quakes have done before.

Even tougher to follow has been the rush of news in the tech and entertainment world as companies react to crisis. A lot of trivial, some of it heartwarming, the Internet’s been abuzz with news of everything from cancellations to missing persons reports.

In response to the devastation, some companies have deemed their products unfit for public consumption. Japanese game developer Irem outright canceled their PS3 title Disaster Report 4, providing nothing than a brief statement apologizing to fans of the series. Warner Entertainment Japan announced yesterday they would be pulling Clint Eastwood’s latest film Hereafter from Japanese theaters. The Matt Damon vehicle told three parallel stories about mortality and the afterlife, including one about a journalist surviving the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Warner’s rep told the Associated Press that the content was “not appropriate” in light of recent events.

There’s precedent for this kind of sensitivity-based censorship, even in the United States. 20th Century Fox delayed the release of its sniper film Phone Booth by six months in response to the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks. An episode of The Simpsons in which the family travels to New York City to reclaim their car has been either pulled or edited in many regions due to its inclusion of the Twin Towers. Some believe the initial delay of Fight Club was a reaction to Columbine.

This kind of self-censorship is welcome in light of the more despicable things to follow this tragedy. Ignorant jerks flapped their mouths on Facebook and Twitter, declaring the natural disaster payback for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Insurance provider Aflac fired comedian Gilbert Gottfried (who has lent his grating voice to their duck mascot for several years) for a series of inappropriate tweets about the events. These brazen displays of insensitivity are enough to make you want to pull the plug on social media altogether.

Thankfully, the Internet’s useful for more than being an asshole. Shortly after the quake and tsunami, Google continued to prove its commitment to good causes in trying times by launching a version of its Person Finder app for Japan. Type in someone’s name, and it will tell you if anyone’s heard from them. It’s not a perfect system, however. All the data is public, and Google won’t be taking the time to verify any uploaded information. But it’s better than nothing. Google earns major points for leveraging its mindshare to enable the better parts of humanity.

Perhaps the blogosphere should’ve checked the Person Finder more closely before running away with stories like the supposed death of Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri. After being erroneously pronounced dead on Twitter, Tajiri confirmed his survival on Facebook. The Internet also wrongly proclaimed Hello Kitty creator Yuko Yamaguchi dead. No harm, no foul, I suppose? Making up bad news creates an opportunity for real good news.

Other actual good news includes the outpouring of support Japan has received from a number of countries, celebrities, and companies. Lady Gaga, P Diddy, Katy Perry, and even Charlie Sheen were among many entertainment personalities who implored their fans to donate toward relief efforts. Gaming companies such as Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft have all given millions, fitting when you consider the place Japan holds in many gamers’ hearts.

There are numerous ways you can give – some straightforward, others more…roundabout. Go to the American Red Cross’s Causes.com page. Head to the iTunes store and click the Red Cross button. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has pledged to match up to $100,000 in aid generated through Citizen Effect.

Those are the easy ones. Facebook game developer Zynga has announced a partnership with Save the Children to raise money through in-game microtransactions. Zynga will donate 100 percent of the proceeds from sales of special items in FarmVille, CityVille, FrontierVille, and Zynga Poker. A Nintendo DS signed by some gaming luminaries is up for auction on eBay. Anyone playing the ridiculously complicated spacefaring MMO EVE Online can donate their in-game currency to the cause. Welcome to the future, where being a good Samaritan doesn’t have to get in the way of your gaming.

If you’ve got the time, consider making a donation. If you’ve got the extra cash, consider sending some towards Christchurch, New Zealand, which was hit by a devastating quake just a few weeks ago. If this tragedy’s taught me anything, it’s that the collective humanity of the media and the Internet can do good. So long as it’s wielded properly and effectively.