Japan, Middle East stretch nets thin

With the high volume of international news breaking over the past few weeks — from revolution in the Middle East to natural and nuclear disasters in Japan — the cable news networks and broadcast net news ops are stretched to the seams.

In Japan, there’s the additional challenge of balancing reporting needs with safety concerns amid a widening crisis of radiation leaking from damaged nuclear reactors in areas hard hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

The risks reporters face were highlighted as Britain, Australia and Germany, among other countries, issued advisories suggesting that citizens consider leaving even Tokyo, 140 miles from the damaged reactors in northeastern Japan.

Mark Whitaker, newly appointed CNN Worldwide editorial topper, told Variety on Wednesday that the events of the past month have convinced him that harnessing CNN’s considerable international reach for world news coverage needs to be a top priority for the U.S. outlet. “We’re not going to go back to having a day where you don’t have any foreign news on the (U.S.) network,” Whitaker said, noting that he’d been discussing broader international coverage with CNN topper Jim Walton since before he was formally appointed to his post in January.

ABC News senior veep Kate O’Brian said the sudden need for intense coverage all around the world was taxing reporters — who are facing both wartime atrocities and horrific natural disasters, sometimes consecutively.

(Four New York Times journalists were reported missing in Libya on Tuesday, as the conflict between forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi and rebels continued. A reporter for London’s the Guardian was released after two weeks in custody.)

CNN has devoted its trademark shows to the coverage of the international scene, with Wolf Blitzer anchoring “The Situation Room” from Tunisia, Piers Morgan broadcasting his interview with Benjamin Netenyahu from Israel and Anderson Cooper anchoring “Anderson Cooper 360″ live from Tokyo.

MSNBC said Wednesday that it will continue wall-to-wall coverage on the unfolding Japanese crisis, with “every hour of our coverage centered around the disaster,” according to a spokeswoman. That net added live hourlong broadcasts from Tokyo at 11 p.m. to its sked this week.

Fox News declined a request for comment.

The ayemcasts of ABC, CBS and NBC were almost entirely devoted to the fast-moving events in Japan as reports of ground water contamination around the reactors increased. Rescue and recovery efforts also continued to yield dramatic and tragic stories of both suffering and survival. But as of late Wednesday, none of the Big Three planned to preempt primetime programming for special news coverage.

Geiger counters have become standard equipment for reporters in Japan, even for those well outside the most acute danger zone. Both ABC and NBC said their newsers are going into the field with a full complement of anti-radiation gear as the reporters try to get a handle on the magnitude of the danger from the fires and radiation leaks at the Fukushima I nuclear reactor.

NBC News’ countermeasures include an expert in chemical and nuclear devices who was flown into Tokyo from London by the network. NBC’s Lester Holt and his crew found traces of radiation on them after one excursion.

“He’s done a threat assessment,” said David Verdi, NBC News’ veep of newsgathering. “He’s putting barriers up on the windows. He has potassium iodide dosages with him that he can administer, and we have protective masks and protective suits.”

ABC has handed out emergency provisions like dosimeters (patches of film that darken in the presence of radiation), facemasks and iodine pills to its newsers, with Geiger counters for every group.

Verdi says that in the face of such a horrifying situation, NBC News and its competitors take time out to share safety information. “That competitive element to what we’re doing doesn’t come into play when it gets this serious,” Verdi said.

Although Japan’s radiation drama has captured the spotlight, the nets are still devoting significant manpower to the strife in Libya and the ongoing war in Afghanistan. CNN correspondent Mohammed Jamjoom was ejected Wednesday from Bahrain. Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that four of its correspondents covering the Libya crisis were missing.

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