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.

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.)

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.

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