The triple disaster. The triple whammy. Both terms are now common in media accounts of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear-plant disaster that has literally rocked Japan. Juggling the tripartite story has clearly not been easy for reporters.

In a strange use of one of the first editorials on the subject, The Wall Street Journal accused the media of tossing one of the pins too high in the air:

Part of the problem is the lack of media proportion about the disaster itself. The quake and tsunami have killed hundreds, and probably thousands, with tens of billions of dollars in damage. The energy released by the quake off Sendei is equivalent to about 336 megatons of TNT, or 100 more megatons than last year’s quake in Chile and thousands of times the yield of the nuclear explosion at Hiroshima. The scale of the tragedy is epic.

Yet the bulk of U.S. media coverage has focused on a nuclear accident whose damage has so far been limited and contained to the plant sites. In simple human terms, the natural destruction of Earth and sea have far surpassed any errors committed by man.

Given the incomplete news reports, it is impossible to say how much worse the nuclear damage will be.

The Journal’s board is quite right on one account. The earthquake and tsunami have killed untold thousands. Official estimates were hovering around 4,000 dead and half a million homeless on Wednesday, but the toll is expected to “far exceed 10,000,” according to many reports. According to The New York Times’s latest information at press time, details about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant—where at least three reactors and one spent fuel pool were in critical condition—remained sketchy, but “Five workers have died since the quake and 22 more have been injured for various reasons, while two are missing.”

That perspective is incredibly important. There is no question that the quake and tsunami have inflicted far greater suffering in Japan than its disabled nuclear plant, but the Journal’s contention that “the bulk” of the news has focused on nuclear issues is vague and poorly supported.

It is no surprise that many outlets led with stories about the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The place is on the verge of a nuclear catastrophe, the likes of which the world has not seen in thirty years and whose consequences are very difficult, if not impossible, to predict. Numerous reports have pointed out the situation at Fukushima has remained at a four on the seven-point International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (or INES), despite calls to increase its rating. [Update, March 18: CNN reports that Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency raised the level for the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant Friday from a 4 to 5 — putting it on par with the 1979 incident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island. Chernobyl was a 7.] There have been myriad comparisons to Three Mile Island, which killed no one, and Chernobyl, which killed 4,000 to 9,000, according to the World Health Organization (although anti-nuclear groups put the death toll higher). Yet headlines such as “Japan nuclear crisis eclipses Three Mile Island, nears ‘Chernobyl league,” are of little value.

The deaths and sickness that would actually result from a worst-case scenario in Fukushima is, as the Journal pointed out, “impossible to say,” and the reporters must take great care to avoid fear mongering. For example, as is almost always the case, it is inadvisable to follow the example of the New York Post, which plastered “Nuke Terror—Japan sites on brink of meltdown” in bold letters across its front page.

The Washington Post zeroed in on a 2006 report from the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies, which partially faulted the media for stoking unnecessary anxiety. According to the report:

… individuals in the affected population were officially categorized as “sufferers,” and came to be known colloquially as “Chernobyl victims,” a term that was soon adopted by the mass media. This label, along with the extensive government benefits earmarked for evacuees and residents of the contaminated territories, had the effect of encouraging individuals to think of themselves fatalistically as invalids.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.