NPR’s coverage of Japan is ‘trivial.’ Say what?

A New Hampshire woman is upset that NPR isn’t treating Japan’s nuclear crisis seriously. Another complains that earthquake coverage is “trivial.” Someone wonders if a story about neon lights going dim in Tokyo is worthwhile when 27,000 people are dead or missing.

While it’s never been my job to defend NPR, this is a moment when I will since I have a front row seat behind the scenes at NPR.

It’s always easy to criticize news coverage, which is bound to upset some. And those upset are the ones most likely to take the time to call, comment or write. After all, who calls their cable company to say what a good job they are doing?

But NPR is doing an impressive job with its Japan coverage. Let’s not forget how complicated it is for journalists unfamiliar with the language to parachute into a country that has just been turned upside down by an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear catastrophe.

Within hours of the monster March 11 earthquake, the network was equipping and mobilizing staff to fly to Japan, where it does not have a full-time bureau. In the first two weeks, NPR paid more than $120,000 for hotels, translators, drivers, rental cars, food, and gas.

At the peak of the story, NPR had 30-40 people, in Japan and Washington, working on coverage at any one time. To date, NPR has done approximately 196 on-air stories on the earthquake and its aftermath since March 11. Stories on the web have been equally prolific.

NPR hired six local interpreters in Japan, along with drivers and “fixers” (people who can make things happen quickly.) A bureau was established at a Tokyo hotel, soon staffed by Deputy Managing Editor Stu Seidel, two science correspondents and two radio producers.

“In northeast Japan, we had three reporters plus a producer reporting on the aftermath of the tsunami and the massive human tragedy that followed,” said David Sweeney, NPR’s managing editor.

“Then we added a photographer to take pictures for online, as well as a business correspondent to report on the impact of the disaster on the Japanese economy,” Sweeney continued. “Here at our head office, we had a major operation: our Science desk had a team of editors, reporters and producers working around the clock on the crippled nuclear reactor component of the story for radio and digital/online. We also used correspondents from the White House and our National Security teams.”

All of this was done (and continues) across a 13-hour time zone difference from the East Coast.

“Covering this story was a challenge on a number of levels: complex nuclear science, an absence of quality information from the scene, and managing multiple staffs across time zones and oceans,” said Sweeney. “Our reportage has aimed at reflecting the enormity of what happened to Japan as a country and its economy, as well as reporting and explaining what was going on at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, and capturing the human toll in the northeast that cost an estimated 27,000 lives.”

This kind of coverage requires air traffic controller-like talents.

The number of reporters, producers, editors, and hosts remains constant. This story needs to be covered thoroughly and sensitively while still staffing NPR shows.

And then, there are the many uprisings in the Middle East that need and are getting equal attention.

It is an amazing time for news. Consider all that’s happened in the first three months of the year:

* An Arizona Congresswoman was shot.

* Protesters in Egypt and Tunisia brought down their governments. There are uprisings in Bahrain and Syria. The U.S. is involved in a maintaining a “No Fly Zone” in Libya.

* The U.S. government is facing a shut-down if the president and a sharply divided Congress can’t reach agreement on a budget.

* An unimaginable earthquake in Japan is followed by a tsunami that crashes through northern Japan killing an estimated 27,000 people. And all that water has crippled nuclear reactors, coming close to a meltdown and terrifying a nation.

And don’t forget that NPR reporters and producers overseas are, in some cases, risking their lives to get stories.

Correspondents covering upheavals in the Middle East face hostile armed militaries, undisciplined rebels and outright chaos. Dozens of journalists from other news organizations have been attacked or kidnapped in the Middle East just this year, and a half-dozen have even been killed.

In Japan, correspondents covering the towns around the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex are reporting without knowing exactly what radiation dangers lurk.

Are there moments when NPR’s coverage in Japan and the Middle East has been less than perfect? Certainly. That’s the nature of any business, including journalism.

I’m sure I will be accused of being a shill for NPR but the reality is that I have a great deal of respect and admiration for hard-working, creative journalists and all they will do and risk to get the story.

This column was originally published on April 1, 2011.

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