Missoula to Fukushima

Students at the University of Montana School of Journalism will get an exceptional experience in the early part of this summer as they travel to Japan.

By Christian Kiemele, Nelson Weller Intern

The group will be overseas from May 22 to June 11, covering stories on life after the catastrophic triple disaster of 2011. On March 11, 2011, Fukushima, Japan, was hit by an earthquake, followed by a tsunami, which caused a meltdown at the local nuclear power plant.

“Our focus is on the idea of home in a disturbed landscape,” says Nadia White, associate professor at the journalism school . “People have to decide if they are going to move back to where they were before these disasters happened, or are they going to call theirJournalism Logo new place home.”

White is the lead organizer of the trip, with support from journalism faculty member Denise Dowling.

“One of the things that’s important to us is connecting this back to Montana,” says Dowling. “We want to tell stories that will have a direct relationship to communities in Montana who are going through some of the same struggles as the people in Fukushima.”

One of those communities is Libby, Montana. The town was a mining site for vermiculite, which is used in a variety of construction materials, starting in 1919 and continuing until 1999. The vermiculite mined in the area was contaminated by asbestos, which polluted the water, air and rest of the surrounding area. It is estimated that 400 Libby resident deaths are tied to the exposure, as well as almost three thousand illnesses.

Both Fukushima and Libby have local industries—fishing in Fukushima and logging in Libby—that have taken hits due to their respective disasters. Both cities’ residents have been told that the government’s cleanup of their sites is done, and that they should go back home. Families from both areas are struggling to decide whether they feel safe enough to do so.

“We’re looking to make that connection of ‘What is home?’” says White. “’How do you rebuild faith and trust in your hometown after an industrial accident?’ I’m excited about that tie-in and in taking that regional approach.”
The students on the trip may also draw comparisons to other places in Montana, like Anaconda and the communities along the Clark Fork River.

Stories will be told in three mediums: print, television broadcast and photojournalism. All content generated by the students will be made available for Montana media outlets to use. Students will also post frequently to the school’s Facebook page throughout the trip and after.

Student participants not only get to travel to overseas, but also get real-world experience.

“This is journalism in action,” says Rehana Asmi, a journalism student with a background in public affairs reporting. “I’m going to be going into the field and reporting. I’m really excited to see the packages we produce, and I’m very curious to see how it’s all going to work out.”

Asmi will focus on comparing the compensation policies the residents of both Fukushima and Libby were offered.

“A lot of my writing will be focused on the intricacies of these policies. How did they start? How much has been paid? How has that helped? There’s also all of these different divides amongst people who are getting different amounts. This whole topic is kind of the overarching theme for our content as a whole.”

Not every student going on the trip is journalism major, however. Japanese majors like Andrea Bruce will be there to help translate and navigate the culture.

“I am really looking forward to helping people who have never been to Japan before maneuver through Japanese society,” says Bruce, who has studied abroad in Tokyo. “I get to help them with their international reporting, while dabbling in a new experience myself."

White and her students began fundraising for the trip last fall, and received donations from supporters on and off campus. The group put on a variety of events, from a party with the Japanese Student Association, where they had a bonfire and bobbed for apples, to a “Sake and Sushi” night at Missoula’s Sushi Hana as a fundraiser.

“We achieved all of our goals,” she says. “It’s been really fun to look around and see this wealth of connectivity in interest in Japan, from Mike Mansfield all the way to some great alumni who are in Japan working in the media.”

For White, the most exciting thing is what she will see her students experience.

“I really look forward to just watching the students go from nervous to comfortable in a foreign culture. Watching them grow into their confidence really excites me. That’s why we teach.”

Programs like this one provide UM students with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for hands-on learning and in-the-field training. Support the School of Journalism today at http://supportum.org/givingopportunities/academicsandresearch/Journalism/default.php.

Do you have a UM story you'd like to share? We'd love to hear it! Share it with us today.