It took Shinichi Takeda of the Kohoku Shimpo Publication Company in Japan a lot of courage to admit that its Sendai-based newspaper had failed to educate its readers about disaster preparedness.
It's this failure that has Takeda living with regrets to this day.
Had this been done, Takeda believes fewer lives would have been lost when the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami struck the Tohoku region east of Tokyo, which left a string of cities in ruins. The disaster claimed 20,000 lives, among them 27 people who had worked for the Kohoku Shimpo paper. Up to today, 2,500 people are still missing, and about 140,000 people still live in temporary shelters in Japan.
Takeda is head of the disaster risk reduction-education section of his firm.
Five and a half years after the earthquake and tsunami, Takeda said that while some people are still trying to piece together their lives, others still live in grief, sadness and despair.
Takeda briefed five journalists from the Caribbean and South Pacific on the important role the media need to play in educating readers about disaster prevention.
Takeda noted that some editors and publishers continue to ignore their public responsibilities to disseminate life-saving information, and he urged these people to get their act together and not wait until it is too late.
"It is too late to take action after the fact. It is a great pain to see your readers–local people–lose their lives to a disaster. I still, even as of today, regret this. I had to see readers lose their lives. The newspaper did not do enough to enlighten and educate people. I don't want this to happen again. Lives could have been saved if we were more into disaster-preventing education for the people," Takeda said, speaking at his company's head office in Sendai.
With a staff of 450 employees, Shimpo Publishing has the largest circulation of any daily newspaper in Sendai.
In the morning, the company distributes 450,000 newspapers, while the evening paper publishes 70,000 copies.
Takeda recalled that two months after the tragedy had struck, residents living in temporary shelters were asked by the Kohoku Simpo, in a questionnaire, if its articles had educated and helped them to prepare for a natural disaster. Seventy-two per cent of respondents said the paper's stories had not been helpful. That was when the company realised that it had failed in its public duty.
Realising where they had gone wrong, in 2011, the Kohoku Shimpo took the initiative to hold seminars for neighbourhood associations, schools, companies and its readers to reduce the risk associated with natural disasters and to disseminate information to help people protect their lives. Over 60 organisations and 120 people were involved.
"These workshops served as a wonderful opportunity for people to share their individual experience of the disaster. There was not much opportunity for people to share what kind of action they took, or what kind of danger they faced, at the time of the disaster, or even after. People need to be given a chance to speak. I think local newspapers are best suited for this kind of function in society."
In addition, every month the Kohoku Shimpo now organises a round-table meeting with universities, corporate bodies and media organisations to share information, ideas and discuss disaster reduction risks, which the paper publishes.
"Every year we spend five million yen (TT$318,000) on these workshop sessions with the hope of getting the renewed confidence of our readers," Takeda said.
Takeda said today, one out of four of its readers now feel the paper's items on disaster preparedness are useful.
The company has been able to relocate survivors to a safer evacuation point. It has also created a hazard map which pinpoints all the buildings that are unsafe to enter, and those which do not keep communities isolated.
Having lost two offices as a result of the tsunami, with its main office receiving some damage, Takeda said while it was important to report on the disaster, the most important aspect was to raise awareness among the people.
Takeda believes there is no difference in reporting disaster preparedness or publishing articles on health, environment, conflict or war.
"They all have the same importance. Newspapers can take initiatives for this disaster prevention education. Just reporting how bad the situation is, is not good enough. It's important to also include positive messages to encourage and raise people's hopes after a disaster."