Tuned In

Quake/Tsunami Takes Over TV News (Mostly), Will Test Foreign Depth

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TV news and social media snapped to attention early this morning (U.S. time) as news came of a 8.9 earthquake that hit off the coast of northern Japan and the tsunami that caused massive devastation and rolled across the Pacific.

As I write, most news and broadcast networks are wall-to-wall in coverage—as well as The Weather Channel, currently running commercial-free—and news outlets are crowdsourcing reports from Japan. One of the best sources of live video and blog reporting I’ve seen this morning is the BBC’s live site; meanwhile, Twitter is crackling with live updates, and even Google, in a rare move, changed its homepage to carry a live tsunami alert. (See here for photos from TIME.)

An ongoing question, though, in what is sure to be a big story, is how well U.S. networks can cover the events, as many of them have gutted overseas bureaus, including those in Asia. And one puzzling exception to the dedicated coverage this morning was MSNBC, which stuck largely to politics while Hawaii and the Pacific coast waited out a tsunami warning.

While most networks were showing video of wreckage in Japan and monitoring tsunami maps of the Pacific, MSNBC’s Morning Joe spent a good chunk of its time on American politics: roundtables on the Wisconsin labor showdown, an interview with the state’s governor, a chat with Pat Buchanan about the political effect of rising oil prices. To be fair, the network did carry earthquake news in its lower third and broke in for news updates; 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.

It was unsurprising that CNN, much more devoted to international news, should out-cover MSNBC on the story; it brought in live reports from journalists in Japan regularly, showing that its world-news reach is still in a different class from its rivals’. What was stunning is that the newsertainment show Fox and Friends—on Fox News, where international coverage has usually taken a back seat to opinion and domestic news—had more dedicated coverage and a more appropriate tone than its MSNBC rivals.

Through the morning, the TV networks were split-screening between the horrible destruction in Japan (homes swept away, explosions, a reported nuclear emergency) and the possible effects in the U.S.—understandably, since no one, as I write, still knows how powerful the tsunami’s effects will be.

As the story goes forward, though—assuming the major effects are in Japan—expect the story to highlight which news outlets still have global reach and which don’t. New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter noted this morning that only CBS, of three broadcast morning shows, had a live report from Japan, and that from a freelancer. Social media has given every person online the ability to act as an on-the-spot reporter, and all kinds of news organizations are rightly harnessing Twitter and amateur video. The question now is: have we become the foreign bureau?

[Update: In the spirit of crowdsourcing, please feel free to suggest any off-the-beaten-path coverage links and resources in the comments.]