Reporting recent history: Modern speed

Newspaper headlines and knee-jerk analysis of major historical events make for inaccurate history. Or to put it another way, spending too much time tracking the news is inefficient. Give a major event a year to settle down, or two years, or a decade, or a quarter century, and you have a better chance of ascertaining the “truth.”

The 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania was characterised by intense and most confusing media reporting, and much of what was reported had to be revised over the next decade. The Soviets instinctively set out to cover up their 1986 Chernobyl calamity and they did a good job of making a historian’s future labours difficult. Obsessing over daily media in 1979 or 1986 would have been interesting but not terribly productive.

By the time three reactors melted down at Fukushima Daiichi in early 2011, the Internet had revolutionised news gathering. The press and TV formed the core of the breaking news, but now articles and photos and videos were at my desk almost as soon as they were produced. Within a fortnight, quality analysis, both pro-nuclear and antinuclear, helped with interpretation. A handful of bloggers, mostly pronuclear, sprang into existence, doing an invaluable job of sifting the Japanese information from Tepco, the Fukushima operator. The next two months were an intoxicating brew of history-in-the-making and prognostication, and Fukushima didn’t really die out as newsworthy until 2012.

But here’s the thing. Within a half decade, official and semi-official commissions came out with voluminous reports on the accidents. In other words, proper experts hashed out the details. A number of books, with pluses and minuses from my perspective, were rushed out. (I’m only now tackling the last of these and the best, Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster by David Lochbaum, Ed Lyman and Susan Stranahan.) And for all the pleasure of printing out daily “in the moment” reports over 2011, now I’ve had to process them. And there’s just been too much!

What’s the answer? No easy principle or formula is whacking me in the face, that much I know.