Another article from Reuters, by Steve Gorman, took a similar tack as the Los Angeles Times, pointing out that the next “big one” in California is “expected to pale next to the Japan quake.” It explained that subduction zones create the world’s most powerful earthquakes and “a 9.0 quake is virtually impossible along the San Andreas” network of strike-slip faults. Unlike the Times, however, it quoted a USGS spokesperson emphasizing that “you don’t need a magnitude 9 to cause extensive damage,” though it was careful to mention that part of the reason for that is that California’s buildings are not as earthquake resistant as those in Japan.

A great piece from the Associated Press had more detail about the Golden State’s feeble infrastructure, pointing out, among other things, that “California’s five-year-old program for helping cash-strapped public schools seismically retrofit their most vulnerable buildings has so far disbursed only a tiny portion of the $200 million set aside under the effort. The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, damaged in the 1989 earthquake, still hasn’t been replaced. Thousands of old hospitals and apartment buildings remain despite being at serious risk in a quake.” (The San Diego Union Tribune published a letter from a member of the Structural Engineers Association of California calling on government to work more closely with the group to ensure public safety.)

Henderson’s article for Reuters cited a second 2008 report from the USGS, which concluded that there is 99 percent probability that California will experience one or more magnitude 6.7 or greater quakes in the next thirty years, and a 46 percent chance that it will experience one or more magnitude 7.5 or greater quakes in that time. The report also concluded that about three magnitude 5 or greater quakes will occur in the state per year, and that a magnitude 6 or greater quake will happen about every one-and-a-half years.

Gorman’s article for Reuters reported that a major California earthquake is “long overdue,” although it did not elaborate or provide any supporting evidence. For such detail, one would have to turn to MSNBC.com, which quoted an earthquake expert at the University of California at Davis, John Rundle, explaining that historical analyses show that there is a major temblor along the San Andreas about every 160 years and that the last one was in 1857, 154 years ago. Along the Cascadia subduction zone, which stretches from Vancouver Island to Northern California in the Pacific Northwest (and features the Juan de Fuca plate sliding under the North American plate), there is a major event every about 500 years and the last one was in 1700, 311 years ago (an AFP article, however, quotes a geotechnical engineer at the Oregon Department of Geology who says the fault ruptures more like every 240 years).

The main thrust of MSNBC.com’s article is actually whether or not earthquakes happen in clusters, given the recent temblors in Japan, New Zealand, and Chile. A number of experts weigh in on the matter. The article jumps off from a column in Newsweek by Simon Winchester, the author of Krakatoa and books about geologic history, who argues that there is “little doubt” that earthquakes happen in clusters (the outlet also interviewed Winchester). Then it paraphrases Rundle, the earthquake expert from UC Davis, saying that while scientists have tended to view major earthquakes as impendent, and clustering as random, the recent string of forceful temblors worldwide has some asking about correlation. Then it quotes a geophysicist with the USGS saying, “There is no evidence of global large-earthquake clustering beyond localized aftershock sequences.”

The yes-maybe-definitely-not quotation strategy might leave the impression of he-said-she-said reporting, but the takeaway message from MSNBC.com’s work is that there is, in fact, plenty of doubt surrounding Winchester’s theory that earthquakes cluster. An article in The Boston Globe also does a good job explaining that while they “might seem like a powerful trend … geophysicists do not know whether the clustering of large earthquakes represents anything more than chance.”

Most of the articles cited above also mentioned that it is still impossible to predict earthquakes. What none of them provided, however, was a clear description of the research geologists and seismologists are are doing to improve their knowledge. A piece from Popular Mechanics stood apart in this regard, explaining that:

Despite decades of research, seismologists are still unable to predict these catastrophic events. Some experts fear they may be chaotic phenomena and hence fundamentally unpredictable. Instead, scientists focus on more attainable goals, deploying sensor arrays, satellite instrumentation and computer simulations to develop a clearer picture of how earthquakes happen, where they are likely to strike and how much damage they can do.

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