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Analysis: TV Cable Coverage of Japan Crisis Is Lacking

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Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images

"Let’s start with the three obvious failures in television coverage of Japan: Lack of planning. Perspective. Focus," writes THR's television critic Tim Goodman.

In the midst of any national disaster, the suggestion arises that citizens have an emergency plan in place and, even better, that they practice disaster preparedness. Apparently most people think that’s silly (or that they’ll never be in a catastrophe), because you rarely see anyone doing the prep work.

Unfortunately, cable news in this country is just as lazy. Because if any institution needs to get back to basics and refocus on what it takes to survive a disaster – or report on it with integrity – it’s the cable news business. You would think that with all the chaos in the world and all the earthquakes, tsunamis, insurgencies, war and whatnot, some high ranking cable news executive would gather the reporters and anchors for a refresher course.

Or, as it sadly seems, their first lesson.

The triple threat in Japan – earthquake, tsunami, nuclear reactors in peril – is clearly demonstrating how reporters and anchors are bungling the basics and how the producers and executives in charge of them have fallen woefully short of leadership. How is it possible that on Monday evening (Tuesday in Japan), with the earthquake, tsunami and worries about radiation poisoning engulfing Japan, a CNN reporter can ask this question: “How scary has this been for you?”

Let’s see, my daughter was ripped from my arms in the tsunami, I almost died, I lost my home, my belongings, family, friends. There are constant aftershocks, new tsunami warnings and apparently we’re about to have a nuclear meltdown. I don’t know, dumbass, how scary does that sound to you?

The remarkable part of running down cable news coverage is that CNN has been, among American television outlets, doing better work than its competitors. It makes you shudder (or should). For example, MSNBC seems adrift in search of a direction and every time it comes back to Chris Matthews and his talk-yelling at people on the set. Fox doesn’t have the reporting strength that CNN does and CNBC appears more concerned about the Nikkei than the people of Japan.

The best coverage – by far – is taking place online by the likes of Japanese network NHK English, the BBC and Al-Jazeera English. Deeper content is, of course, available from print outlets like the New York Times and such, but all natural disasters and wars are visual stories benefiting from moving pictures. And so CNN often becomes the default channel – so their faults, noted here, should then be applied on down to the line to those TV news outlets in this country who fall below CNN (not in ratings, naturally, but quality content).

Let’s start with the three obvious failures in television coverage of Japan: Lack of planning. Perspective. Focus.

You don’t get the last two without the first. And planning on the run does not work. The earthquake happened Friday, followed by the tsunami. Early reports relied heavily on NHK or citizen video, which is to be expected. Getting reporters there was the next issue (and it should be noted that Kyung Lah, CNN’s Tokyo-based reporter has done some excellent work; the channel would have been lost without her). Soon the default patterns set in: Unrelenting and repetitive video, barely explained by anchors or reporters.  Context is essential and maps are not enough: Where did it happen. What’s the area like – farming, residential, heavily manufacturing based – what? How far did the damage extend – or where could it continue to wreak havoc? Across the board, there was a distinct lack of so-called man-on-the-street interviews. Was there an issue with translation? Here’s where Lah was particularly effective – explaining the Japanese culture (an unwillingness to complain about their fate or even critique government response; adherence to order and calm, etc.)

Culturally, this is where American reporters were caught off guard. In Japan, people were not readily willing to share their grief for the cameras. And you couldn’t blame them given some of the pathetic and obvious questions they were given (basically variations on “How do you feel?”) 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.

Thus started the most ill-informed and speculative part of the Japan coverage (which hasn’t improved as each confusing claim comes forth about the radiation risk). In one notable stint, CNN was clearly not listening to Georgia Tech professor Glen Sjoden, who was essentially telling them early on to calm down, that the threat at that point being gravely overstated. As soon as he was off, they ramped up the fear again – meltdown possible! CNN used Sjoden other times and ignored his explanations yet again. Apparently, the anchors don’t have ears. And, by the way, if the Japanese nuclear reactor situation does go colossally wrong, the end does not justify the means, hype-wise.

On the ground, things did not get much better for anyone. Again, not to pick on CNN, but Anderson Cooper arrived on Monday (strangely late) and basically restated everything that had happened prior, only this time with him standing in the middle of the carnage. That perpetuates the Gunga Dan (Rather) image of the prototypical American anchor. Cooper’s brand of hyper-personal involvement does often lead to the humanitary kinds of stories he’s known for in devastated global regions, but in Japan he seemed at a loss for what to do. Part of this, as Sanjay Gupta explained by way of context (late), was that the tsunami basically killed whatever it hit – there were very few survivors in its path. The rest, mostly earthquake victims, got to a hospital (and he noted that the Japanese hospitals are very good). Whether or not Gupta is right – and the suspicion is he’s only partly right and there must have been plenty of people trapped or stranded and American news agencies were too late and too understaffed to be there for the finding of these people – nonetheless exposed a weakness in CNN’s plan.

At one point, Cooper and Gupta were standing around with that “what are we supposed to be doing” look. That spared them, however, from Soledad O’Brien’s embarrassing fate. In one taped segment (though apparently not initially intended for air), she gets word that they need to move out of the area she’s in. Then she panics and yells that a wave is coming and she starts running (all of this being filmed). By the time she reaches high ground in a nearby house, the camera looks out to see nothing but dry land as far as you can see.

Panic much? (Worse, you’d think CNN would burn that video, but no – it re-aired it). In studio, Piers Morgan was having a good show on Monday until – wait for it – he interviewed Yoko Ono about how she felt seeing the Japanese carnage.

Sensational stretches like that are simply embarrassing. Why not interview an Asian-American eating sushi at a restaurant? The connection to Japan is about that tenuous.

Covering this trilogy of terror in Japan (why didn’t someone use that as their coverage title?) really underscores how much better prepared reporters and anchors need to be. The incessantly simplistic and embarrassing questions need to stop. Someone needs to tamp down runaway speculation. Also, the attention on the Middle East in past years has dulled producers’ sense of keeping experts from Asia on the source list.

It’s a shame that going online to watch videos from NHK, BBC and Al-Jazeera English was far and away the best option for Americans. On the other hand, they could take in the news and video content in a more controlled fashion, rather than seeing the same shots of water rushing over sea walls or villages circling around eerily in brown water for the 324th time.

Email Tim Goodman at Tim.Goodman@THR.com. Follow him: www.twitter.com/@bastardmachine