On April 26 1986 a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl plant in the Soviet Union exploded. Today the Chernobyl disaster is considered to be the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history, and the only level 7 nuclear accident on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
I looked at two articles from 1986 in the NY Times and one article from the BBC from April 28 1986, the day the Soviets announced the accident.
The article in the Times from April 28, “Soviet Announces Nuclear Accident at Electric Plant,” By Serge Schmemann, was printed on the front page in the far upper right column with a small graphic of a map depicting the location of the Chernobyl plant. The article shared the page with stories such as: Judge Puts Off Gotti Crime Trial Until August to Revamp the Jury, Cuomo Presents Legislative Plan to Combat Craft, and New Ring of Suburbs Springs Up Around City. Two of the other articles had larger photos than the Chernoble graphic.
Schmemann referred to the Soviet announcement as being, “terse,” and wrote that a Soviet dispatch followed the announcement saying that there had been many nuclear mishaps in the United States and that an American antinuclear group registered 2,300 accidents, breakdowns and other faults in 1979.
Schmemann writes that, “The practice of focusing on disasters elsewhere when one occurs in the Soviet Union is so common that after watching a report on Soviet television about a catastrophe abroad, Russians often call Western friends to find out whether something has happened in the Soviet Union.”
The article cited Tass, the Soviet Government Press Agency, the Whitehouse Chief of Staff, a Swedish diplomat, the Swedish Minister of Energy, Birgitta Dahl, a Swedish official at the Institute for Protection Against Radiation, Scandinavian authorities, and United States experts.
Schmemann also wrote that the Soviets did not admit to the nuclear disaster until hours after Sweden, Finland and Denmark reported unusually high radioactivity levels in their skies and that Scandinavian authorities said the radioactivity levels did not pose any danger. The writer of the article wrote that although this was the first nuclear accident that the Soviets admitted to, the U.S. believes there were two others.
According to the NYT article by Schmemann, the full extent of the damage was not yet clear, but that U.S. experts said that although it could be environmentally disastrous, it would probably pose no danger outside of the Soviet Union.
In this article, casualties are not mentioned. Schmemann briefly mentions that 25,000 to 30,000 people live in a settlement surrounding Chernobyl. The article’s focus is on relations between the Soviet Union and the U.S. and The Soviet Union and Scandinavia. The article published on the same day found on the BBC’s “On This Day” page, titled “Soviets admit nuclear accident,” paints a different picture. The BBC article focuses on the possible casualties, the potential for radiation sickness, and the construction of the nuclear reactor. While Schmemann’s article downplays the fallout that reached Sweden, the BBC article reports that, “The discharge of radioactivity was so great that by the time the fallout reached Sweden, 1,000 miles away, it was still powerful enough to register twice the natural level of radioactivity in the atmosphere.”
The NYT article states that the levels in Sweden were 30 to 40 percent higher than normal. It seems to downplay the nuclear disaster aspect and highlight the bad attitude of the Soviets.
The NYT article was concentrated on the behavior of the Soviets and the fact that they initially denied any problem when Sweden suspected that the radiation was coming from the Soviet Union.
Neither article gives much information on casualties because it was difficult at the time to get that information from the Soviets. Tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were high during this time and that is reflected in the NYT article.
In a NYT article by Stuart Diamond from August 1986, Diamond wrote that experts were disagreeing over the expected Cancer deaths from Chernobyl. Some experts were saying that they had misinterpreted Soviet data and that estimated Cancer victims would be far less than they had originally estimated. Diamond wrote that, “The Americans reacted with anger to the lowered projections and said there was an attempt to deflate the figures out of concern that public reaction would hurt the nuclear power industry around the world.”
The Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath and the victims are still written about by journalists today who still question the accuracy of Russian casualty reports.
Both NYT writers give viewpoints from both sides of the issue, but the writer’s perspective is evident in both articles. During this time journalists were encouraged to be objective just as they are encouraged to be objective today. Although journalists often include opposing viewpoints in their articles it’s common to get a sense of the writers perspective even today.