TV News Struggles to Strike Right Tone on West Coast Tsunami Watch

Coverage of the disaster and aftermath, like the event itself, is all over the map

The 8.9 magnitude earthquake that struck Japan on Friday — killing hundreds, causing massive aftershocks and resulting in a Tsunami rolling across the Pacific, bearing down the West Coast — forced many television news outlets in the U.S. to scramble to cover it, relying on eyewitness and crowd-sourced video and photos along with pooled coverage from northern Japan.

But, like other live news events marked by tragedy, the biggest challenge for American news outlets wasn’t how to cover the quake. It was striking the right tone in their coverage.

CNN, Fox News and MSNBC began continuing coverage in the wee hours of Friday morning.

While CNN and Fox abandoned their normal a.m. news programming for coverage of the quake, MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” dedicated “a good chunk of its program to political coverage, including interviews with David Axelrod and Pat Buchanan, as well as a roundtable on the political showdown in Wisconsin,” TV Newser reports.

“To be fair, the network did carry earthquake news in its lower third and broke in for news updates,” Time television critic James Poniewozik noted on his blog, “but it also kept up a bizarre, Casual-Friday tone, with Joe Scarborough bantering about the iPad 2 and the Vermont screensaver on his Blackberry.”

Fox News made the early (good) call, bumping Glenn Beck's 5 p.m. show in favor of an extra hour Shepard Smith's coverage.

But even on CNN, which thrives in breaking news situations, had some tonal stumbles. Chad Myers, CNN’s meteorologist who’s been known to freak out a bit during weather-related catastrophes, could’ve toned it down a notch when he told people along California’s coast would need to be on “200-foot bluffs” if they wanted to view the incoming waves safely. “Otherwise, we’re gonna lose you.”

At another point during CNN’s overnight coverage, an anchor was apparently giggling about a Godzilla joke, though I haven’t been able to find the clip referenced here.

Among the national morning shows, CBS was the only network to carry a live report from Japan.

As Jezebel.com noted on its Twitter feed, NBC’s Ann Curry introduced a Celine Dion song on the “Today” show, saying, "On a morning like this, it sure is reassuring and calming."

All of the major networks – national and cable — broke for commercials, with the exception of the Weather Channel, which was running commercial free coverage of the Tsunami for part of the morning.