Perhaps having mainstream newspapers place stories about Fukushima—where the worst-case is only one possibility—above stories about the earthquake and tsunami recovery and relief efforts—where death is everywhere—is just as subtly damaging as the egregious tabloid headlines; but there have been plenty of articles explaining that the threat of radiation exposure in Japan is (for the moment) low even though many countries are advising their citizens to leave the area, and that a dangerous plume of radiation is unlikely to waft toward North America. In most cases, journalists have explored the worst-case scenario is an appropriately prudent manner that has involved both reporting and forecasting radiation risk. Moreover, the Journal was wrong to call the coverage “incomplete.”
True, at sites like Environmental Health News, which has been doing an excellent job aggregating hundreds of articles from more than eighty outlets, the focus is almost entirely on the nuclear crisis. But visit The New York Times’s “Japan Earthquake and Tsunami (2011)” topic page, and look at the number of stories focused on the human suffering caused by those two natural disasters. The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press, and other outlets have also devoted significant space to the humanitarian crisis. Likewise, on the domestic front, reporters have spent a lot of time covering talk about reassessing nuclear safety in the U.S., but they have also revisited earthquake and tsunami preparedness. Even a monthly magazine like Scientific American has set up a web page dedicated to explaining the physics and chemistry behind the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear radiation. MSNBC.com has done the same.
There is no doubt that news outlets have been pouring resources into their coverage. CNN posted a list of the team it deployed, and the Chicago Tribune produced an interesting video explaining its strategy. But that doesn’t mean the coverage has been flawless, by any means. The Hollywood Reporter’s television critic, Tim Goodman, lambasted cable television networks for a lack of planning, perspective, and focus related to both earthquake-tsunami coverage on one hand and the nuclear crisis on the other. According to Goodman:
Lack of reporters kept the focus on visuals only, government announcements and in-studio analysis from American pundits, mostly, speculating on the impact. What everyone was having a tough time doing was separating the quake and the regions it hit from the tsunami and its impact. Yes, the visuals were riveting and horrific, but context was lacking. As the nuclear reactor story began gaining attention, all focus was lost and the words “meltdown,” “catastrophe” and “radiation” were tossed around in such a way that it seemed news agencies were willing it all to happen, a rapacious hunger to plant the seeds of Armageddon in viewers’ heads, which of course would translate to ratings.
Part of the problem relates to transparency and access. In a story assessing fears about the situation at Fukushima Daiichi, The New York Times’s Ken Belson reported, “It has not helped that government officials and executives at the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which runs the nuclear power plants in Fukushima, have offered conflicting reports and often declined to answer hypothetical questions or discuss worst-case scenarios.” Likewise, in the U.S., CBS News’s Chip Reid complained that the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, left “reporters with more questions than answers” at a Monday press conference.
In a post at TheAtlantic.com, Cristine Russell, a CJR contributing editor, observed that journalists are caught up in “a race to find reliable, real-time public information about the rapidly changing Japan nuclear power emergency, amidst a sea of confusing, conflicting and often limited information emanating from sources across the world.” The challenges and obstruction don’t absolve them of the need to find the right balance between holding government officials accountable and warding off unnecessary panic among the general public. As Russell pointed out in another post at TheAtlatnic.com:
This seesaw story has swung rapidly between peril and promise and back again, or as a colleague of mine once said, between no hope (catastrophe) and new hope (it’s under control).
The challenge for the press and for government, seldom achieved in this crisis thus far, is to sound an appropriate alarm for those who are at greatest risk — workers and local residents — while calming those at little or no risk. (The challenge is intensified when instant global communication turns everyone into an observer, reporter, and worrier all at once.)