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On the night of April 25,1986, what was later described by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D,Ver.), as “by far the worst nuclear reactor accident known to mankind… beyond even the worst nightmares of nuclear scientists,” occurred in the Soviet Union.
At first, the Soviets said nothing about it.
Only after Moscow officials were pressured by Sweden for an explanation of the sudden increase in radioactivity that Sweden detected, did the Soviet Council of Ministers issue the following statement through the Soviet News Agency Tass: “An accident has occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant as one of the reactors was damaged.” Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. Aid is being given to those affected. A government commission has been set up.”
The Soviets had withheld all information about the accident for over 36 hours and still did not reveal the scope of the disaster when they did finally acknowledge what had happened.
We now believe that “at least 27 cities and villages near the Chernobyl nuclear plant are too contaminated by radioactivity to be resettled in the foreseeable future; and that “the radiation released stretched world wide (1). We also know that the explosion and fire tore apart one of the reactors and that “31 people died” (2). However this figure conflicts with the April 29,1986 United Press International “unconfirmed” report that over 2000 people were killed by the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion (3).
Looking back, we can see that as the story unfolded, international outrage grew over Soviet limitations on news of the disaster, and, despite the lack of hard news attributable to reliable sources in the Soviet Union, newspapers here in the United States picked up the story and reported on it from almost every conceivable angle.
This effort attempts to examine the way the Chernobyl nuclear accident was reported on by the Chicago Tribune and the Christian Science Monitor during the first week after the accident, beginning with the initial report by the Soviet Council of Ministers published by the Tribune on April 29,1986. We will examine the coverage provided from four perspectives, however, it should be understood that this is not a comparison contrast in the accepted sense of the term. It seems that to attempt such a comparison of the Chicago Tribune and the Christian Science Monitor, would be rather like attempting to compare apples and oranges. While both apples and oranges are edible fruit, the differences in taste, texture, and nutritional value are enough to require that each be examined on the basis of its individual qualities.
The four perspectives this review is based on include, first, the actual hard news reported. We define “Hard news” as news of actual Chernobyl nuclear accident-connected events occurring in the Soviet Union. For example, the Soviet announcement of the accident is considered “hard news”. Reports of Soviet efforts to contain the fire at the Chernobyl plant would be considered “hard news.” What some United States official expert believes will be the result of the accident is not considered “hard news.”
The second perspective is one limited to “related stories.” A related story, for our purposes, is one that is not based on actual occurrences at the site of the disaster but addresses some ramification of the disaster. For example, a story about the anxiety of relatives of those in the immediate area of the disaster, would be considered a related story. Criticisms of the Soviet actions by Washington officials would not be considered a related story.
However, such criticisms are considered “Official Reaction”, our third perspective. The words and official actions in response to the disaster, by other officials around the world would also fall into this category, including criticisms of the Soviet Union by then Vice President George Bush.
Finally, a separate category has been established for editorial commentary, our fourth and final perspective. Editorial material appearing in either newspaper within the specified time period would be included in this group. This effort will not address the entire issue of coverage of the Chernobyl disaster because the coverage generated was simply monumental. As noted earlier, we will simply look at a few days coverage by The Chicago Tribune and the Christian Science Monitor.
To characterize the activities of the press as “frenzied” or “biased” during that period would be to understate the intensity of their reporting. Sadly, for all their efforts, apparently the main message that got through to the general public was that the Russians tried to hide the fact that they goofed up some nuclear stuff and the radiation was going to kill us all.
On Tuesday April 29, 1986, The Chicago Tribune first reported the Chernobyl accident under a headline that read” Soviet reactor spews cloud of death fears” (4). The accident was a page one story and it contained the Soviet statement, but, it was presented surrounded by headlines concerning the work of the U.S., and its allies on world economic problems; The surprise move of former White House aide Michael Deaver who joined advocates of an independent investigation of his own lobbying activities; announcement of the opening of Chicago’s first international theater festival; and local aldermanic campaign news.
There was no editorial comment, and while the story referred to U.S. officials citing Swedish reports, no official reaction to the accident was reported, and the only related story appearing in that issue concerned the United States announcement that it may cancel a defense commitment to New Zealand, if visits by nuclear armed or powered United States ships were forbidden (5). The Christian Science Monitor made no mention of the disaster at all.
The Wednesday, April 30,1986 Chicago Tribune devoted nearly half of page one and all of pages 16 (except for an ad) and 17 to the Chernobyl disaster story. The front page headline “Soviets ask aid in meltdown”, led the wide-ranging coverage and was categorized as hard news since the Soviet appeal for foreign assistance in fighting the reactor fire was coupled with the first Soviet report on casualties resulting directly from the disaster.
The April 30, Tribune contained a total of 9 stories about the disaster, including one editorial, and a vicious editorial cartoon, in addition to a map and a chart explaining radiation exposure vs. health risk. If one examines the editorial closely, the thinly disguised anti-Soviet sentiment of the Reagan administration becomes apparent. The editorial criticizes Soviet secrecy saying “Above all, the people of the Soviet Union-people who have been kicked around, sat on, lied to, intimidated and cheated by their government decade after decade- these people have a right to know what has happened to them. And what may be in store for them as a result of the tragedy” (6). The editorial went on to speculate that Mr. Gorbachev’s mounting troubles could make him more receptive to “genuine arms control agreements and other improvements in U.S. USSR relations that would relieve his economic squeeze” (7), and suggested that the Reagan administration now has to make some intelligent judgements – somehow the terms “Reagan administration” and “intelligent judgements” seem mutually exclusive – about the impact of the disaster on this country’s relationship with “that other nuclear superpower”(8).
What is really interesting about the Chicago Tribune coverage of this disaster is the amount of space it devoted to the story it and the many avenues of approach used in covering the accident and its ramifications. It was, however, disappointing to see the kind of rhetoric that appeared on its editorial pages after the thorough job of reporting the Tribune did, considering the absence of facts emanating from the Soviet Union.
It was also disappointing to see so much speculation in the many stories that appeared. Although the speculation was attributed to presumably knowledgeable sources, the fact that it was speculation is quite clear. One example of this speculation appeared on page 17 of the April 30 Tribune:” If it’s true that more than 2,000 people are already dead, I predict that within a month there will be more than 10,000 deaths from radiation exposure,” said Dr. Richard Gardner, at Rush-Presbyterian-St Luke’s Hospital. The Doctor’s statement was presented under the headline:”Thousands of deaths predicted.”(9).
Another painfully clever headline “Radiation cloud may eat away Soviet breadbasket” appeared on the same page, along with another “Shockwaves hit nuclear industry” and in smaller type,” Anguish grips Chicago relatives.”(10).
The Christian Science Monitor published its first pair of articles dealing with the disaster on April 30, 1986. The headlines “Soviet Union hit by nuclear disaster”(11), and “Reactor fire a setback for ambitious Soviet plans” (12), heralded articles that were remarkably free of anti-Soviet sentiment and speculation. The Christian Science Monitor also witheld editorial comment on this first day of its involvement in the Chernobyl story. The straightforward manner of reporting evidenced by the Christian Science Monitor was also devoid of the sort of speculation that appeared in the Chicago Tribune. No story on “Official Reaction” was reported by the Christian Science Monitor in this issue.
The Chicago Tribune of Thursday, May 1,1986 was also dominated by the Chernobyl disaster story and related issues. The Page one headline “U.S. doubts low Soviet toll” was accompanied by a second headline in smaller type: “Moscow stonewalling as world anger grows.” The lead story – based on satellite photo’s that revealed two hot spots at Chernobyl – took pains to point out that U.S. experts were contradicting Soviet assertions that the accident there had been a minor incident (13). However, nothing in either of the three official statements issued by the Soviet Union (14), (15), (16), as of May 1, even remotely asserted that the accident was a minor one. The basis for the Tribune’s assertion that the Soviets had characterized the accident as a minor incident has not yet been determined.
The Christian Science Monitor, on the other hand, seemingly contradicting Tribune reports, stated on page one of its May 1, 1986 edition, “Life in nearby Kiev… is reported by tourists to be normal. But there is still no reliable independent information coming from the scene.” (17). The Monitor also printed an editorial critical of Soviet reluctance to inform the world of the nuclear accident. The editorial called for President Reagan to do more to “highlight the need for universal standards in the design, siting, building and operation of nuclear energy facilities,” (18), but, none of the vicious anti-Soviet rhetoric that appeared in the Tribune was found in the Christian Science Monitor, even though over half of pages 1, 13, and 14, plus all of page 48 was devoted to the accident and related stories (19). In each story, the absence of rhetoric and speculation that characterizes the Christian Science Monitor reporting, emphasizes the shortcomings of some of the Chicago Tribune reporting.
Although both the Chicago Tribune and the Christian Science monitor ran editorials criticizing the Soviets for not promptly announcing the disaster and for maintaining a wall of secrecy around the event, only the Chicago Tribune let its editorial sink to the anti-Soviet rhetoric level. The reporting done by the Christian Science Monitor appears to be much less biased and speculatory than that offered by the Tribune.
The scope of the reporting was much wider in the Tribune than in the Christian Science Monitor, however, in several instances, the Tribune provides ample illustration of the fact that more is not necessarily better. While purely capitalist concerns (such as speculation concerning what the accident will do to the price of farm products in the future) appear time after time in the Tribune, such musings are notably absent from the Christian Science Monitor editions examined for this project.
While Parenti’s observation that the press is controlled by economic interests that also influence the state, was not refuted, it also was not directly supported by any article appearing in either paper. One may argue, however, that the milking of the accident by the Tribune – based on the space occupied by “related stories”, as opposed to “Hard News” about the accident, is typical of those who are more out to sell a product than to responsibly inform the public.
Overall, a profile of the coverage offered by both newspapers from April 29 through May 1, 1986, reveals that 33 percent of all coverage provided qualified as hard news, while 51 percent of the coverage must be called related stories. A total of 8 percent and 7 percent accounted for official reaction and editorial commentary respectively. An analysis of one day’s reporting by the two newspapers (May 1,1986), reveals the approximate 1357 square inches of space filled by The Chicago Tribune’s treatment of the disaster, was 44.7 percent hard news and 55.2 percent related stories.
The 2139 square inches of space filled by The Christian Science Monitor’s treatment of the disaster was 25 percent hard news on May 1st, and 74.6 percent related stories. Rounding accounts for any total less than 100 percent. The conclusion is obvious. Most of our Chernobyl news coverage in the newspapers examined may not be actual news, but rather, information offered in support of the news. What we know for certain about the disaster in the Soviet Union, is that we really don’t know very much for certain, but that apparently was not an impediment to venting anti-Soviet sentiment under the guise of supposedly objective news reporting.
(1). AP-Kiev USSR,”27 Towns Lost To Contamination from Chernobyl”, Chicago Sun Times, June
15,1987, p.42, cols 3,4.
(3). Andrew Radolf, “Wire Services at Odds,” Editor and Publisher, May 24,1986, p.11.
(4). Chicago Tribune Wires-Moscow “Soviet reactor spews cloud of death fears”, Chicago Tribune, April
29,1986, p.1. cols 5,6.
(5). New York Times News Service-Washington “U.S. ready to dump pact with nuclear-shy New
Zealand”, Chicago Tribune, April 29,1986,p.12, cols 2,3,4,5,6.
(6). Editorial “The disaster in the Ukraine”, Chicago Tribune, April 30,1986,p.18,sect 1, cols 1,2.
(9). Ronald Kotulak,”Thousands of deaths predicted”, Chicago Tribune, April 30,1986, p.17,col 1,2,3,4.
(11).Gary Thatcher,”Soviet Union hit by nuclear disaster”, Christian Science Monitor, April 30,1986,p.1,
col 2,3,4; p32,col 1,2,3,4.
(12).Robert C.Cowen,”Reactor fire a setback for ambitious Soviet plans”, Christian Science Monitor, April 30, 1986, p.3, col 1,2,3,4; p4, col 4.
(13).Monday’s Statement (April 28,1986). “An accident has occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant as one of the reactors was damaged. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. Aid is being given to those affected. A government commission has been set up.” (16).
(14). Tuesday’s Statement (April 29,1986). “As has already been reported in the press, an accident has taken place at the Chernobyl nuclear power station 130 kilometers north of Kiev. A government commission headed by Boris Shcherbina, a deputy chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers, is working in the locality. It includes the heads of ministries and departments and leading scientists and specialists.” “According to preliminary data, the accident took place in one of the areas of the fourth power generating unit and resulted in the destruction of part of the structural elements of the building housing the reactor, its damage and a certain leak of radioactive substances. The three other power-generating units have been shut down; They are in order and the operational reserve. Two persons were killed during the accident.”
“Priority measures have been taken to deal with the effects of the accident. The radiation situation at the electric power station and the adjacent territory has now been stabilized, and the necessary medical aid is being given to those affected. The inhabitants of the nuclear power station’s settlement and three nearby populated localities have been evacuated.” “The state of the radiation situation at the Chernobyl nuclear power station and the adjacent territory is being monitored continuously.”(16).
(15). Wednesday’s Statement (April 30,1986). “Work to eliminate the consequences of the accident at Chernobyl atomic power station is continuing. As a result of measures taken, over the past 24 hours the emmission of radioactive substances has gone down and radiation levels in the area of the atomic power station and the power station settlement have been reduced. Measurements being carried out by specialists using monitoring equiptment show that no chain reaction fission of nuclear fuel is taking place.”
“The reactor is in a smothered state. Work is underway to cleanse polluted areas of the adjoining locality. Specialized sub-units supplied with the necessary up-to-date equiptment and effective facilities have been brought in to carry this work out.”
“Some news agencies in the West are spreading rumors that thousands of people, allegedly perished during the accident at the atomic power station. It has already been reported that in reality two persons died, that only 197 people were hospitalized. Forty-nine of them were discharged from the hospital after a medical examination. Enterprises, collective farms and state farms and institutions are functioning normally.”
“The Council of Ministers of the Ukraine reported that, according to the governmental commission, the radiation situation at the Chernobyl atomic power station and in the adjoining locality is improving. The state of the air basin over the remaining territory of the Keiv region and the city of Kiev is causing no concern. The quality of the drinking water, as well as of the water in rivers and water reservoirs, is in line with standards. Constant observations are being carried out over the state of the environment.”(16).
(16).”Soviet Statements on Nuclear Plant Accident”, New York Times, May 1,1986, pA10, cols 2,3,4.
(17).”Effects of Soviet nuclear accident spread”, Christian Science Monitor, May 1,1986, p1, cols 1,2.
(18).”Fallout from Chernobyl”, Christian Science Monitor,May 1,1986,p23,col 1,2.
(19).”Effects of Soviet nuclear accident spread”; “Lack of specifics from Soviets leads to 2 theories about how crisis began”; “Soviets try to quell speculation on disaster”, Christian Science Monitor, May 1, 1986, p48. cols 1,2,3.
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