Major nets pool info, resources amid nuclear threat

News orgs are struggling to keep reporters safe from the radiation leaks that are threatening the northern Japan in the wake of last week’s devastating earthquake and tsunami.

The Fukushima I reactor in Okuma, Japan, has suffered a series of extremely dangerous hydrogen explosions and continues to vent radioactive steam into the environment. Newsers are navigating the opposing tasks of staying out of harm’s way, should further nuclear crises trouble already-devastated Japan, and reporting what is currently the biggest news story in the world.

“We’ve gone nowhere near the exclusion zone,” David Verdi, NBC News’ veep of newsgathering, told Variety on Tuesday. “All we’ve done is pass by on our way north or south.” Verdi said that five major news orgs — NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox and CNN — have conducted group calls during which they share safety information. “That competitive element to what we’re doing doesn’t come into play when it gets this serious,” Verdi said.

Internally, NBC News is putting further measures into place that will keep its reporters safe, including an expert in chemical and nuclear devices who was flown into Tokyo from London by the network.

“He’s done a threat assessment,” Verdi said. “He’s putting barriers up on the windows. He has iodine dosages with him that he can administer, and we have protective masks and protective suits.”

Much depends, quite literally, on a trick of the wind in Okuma. The most dangerous aspect of the accident is the steam vented from the coastal reactors.

Some news orgs have pulled their correspondents out entirely, given the instability of the situation.

“We have moved our teams out of Sendai, Japan and we continue to reassess deployments, as the situation warrants,” said CBS News veep Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews. Fox News has pulled correspondents back to Tokyo, including Shepard Smith, Adam Housley and Gret Palkot, with David Piper at Yakota airbase.

CNN continues to maintain a presence close to the affected area, with Anderson Cooper anchoring from Akita, north of Sendai. “The situation is under constant review and the safety and well-being of our reporters in the field is our top priority,” said a spokesperson for the Turner cabler. “We have several reporters throughout the region and teams in Tokyo as well.”

The heightened tensions in Japan during the past few days are eerily familiar to Dick Hoxworth, a former reporter for WGAL-TV in Lancaster, Pa., who led coverage of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in 1979. Hoxworth said he believes the widespread media coverage of Japan’s risky nuclear drama will give pause to nations weighing the benefits and costs of nuclear power.

“You’re going to again have the general public, especially those living near a nuclear power plant, have that feeling of ‘Can we really trust what’s being told to us?’ ” Hoxworth predicts.

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