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.)

It is an incredibly difficult task, to be sure. This story might have even more moving parts than last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or earthquake in Haiti. Overseas, reporters must not lose sight of the humanitarian crisis in Japan while they continue to track the blow-by-blow developments at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. At home, they must also be fair and balanced when analyzing nuclear safety and earthquake-tsunami preparedness. Covering risk is no easy feat, involving analysis of a hazard as well as exposure to that hazard—perspective, context, and accuracy are crucial.

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