By Donella Meadows
–June 12, 1986–
The Chernobyl accident was a story about nuclear power and also a story about how both East and West distorted the story, each in a different direction.
Western news reports of Chernobyl began with exaggerated estimates of the number of deaths. Later the big story was the refusal of the Soviet Union to release information about the disaster, either to neighboring countries or to its own people.
The Soviet press was late and light on information about the accident itself. Its coverage featured the heroism of the fire-fighters at the plant and the magnificent 15-nation effort, led by Armand Hammer and Dr. Robert Gale, to save the lives of the radiation victims. Another theme was the sensationalism of the Western press in reporting the casualties.
Of course each side tried to make itself look good and the other look bad. But there was another kind of distortion. As it so often does, the Eastern press played up the good news and minimized the bad, not only about its own regime but about humankind in general. The Western press did the opposite.
Imagine what would have happened if Chernobyl had been accessible to Western journalists. We might have heard something of heroism, but we certainly would have heard about the agonizing deaths of the victims. There would have been interviews with the bereaved families. Portrayals of the disrupted lives of the evacuees. Above all, there would have been a ferocious hunt for the mistakes of the officials in charge of the plant.
In this case the Soviet silence about bad news was inexcusable; it endangered millions of people. The Western bias toward tragedy, melodrama, and official bungling would have been preferable, though it would probably have set off a panic. But the point is that neither side told the whole, clean truth. Each operated with its characteristic optimistic or pessimistic bias.
I was not really aware of the negative bias of the Western media until once when I asked colleagues from many countries for good-news stories about environmental management. I was overwhelmed with responses from the socialist countries, most of them cut out of the daily papers. The Chinese sent me articles about reclaiming desert for farmland and about reforestation. The Hungarians were growing wheat on reclaimed strip mines. The Soviets had cleaned up Lake Baikal.
My colleagues from the West sent almost nothing. When I asked why, they said they knew about plenty of environmental screw-ups, but not about any good-news stories.
Now I’m sure there are as many good environmental stories in the West as in the East, probably more. But they are not the primary content of either our papers or our thinking. We are more aware of our disasters.
Why? Why does the East draw from Chernobyl a story of heroism, while the West draws a story of failure? Why do Easterners hear how well their society is working, while Westerners hear how theirs is falling apart?
There are probably a lot of reasons.
Western journalists say proudly that their job is to inform citizens, a sacred task in a society where people are empowered to make crucial decisions. Citizens need to know what is going wrong.
A more cynical view is that Western journalists report what sells, and bad news sells. People wouldn’t buy a paper full of Pravda-style reports on the outstanding production of the workers in the machine-tool industry. They want the details of the latest murder, fire, or outlandish scam of our public officials.
The Eastern press also takes pride in its crucial social role. Its journalists say they report what people need to know to keep the society harmonious and productive. They refuse to pander to the low sensationalist elements in public taste — what good does it do to publicize the rare human failing, instead of the abundant human triumphs?
You and I would say the Eastern press reports only what glorifies the government and keeps the people pliant and complacent.
Whatever the reasons for their bias, the Eastern media are so blatantly one-sided that no one believes the happy-sappy picture they put forth. Everyone in the USSR knows how to read between the lines, how to factor in doubt and cynicism.
The Western media are more skilled and convincing, and we are too likely to believe them without reservation. We come to think that all politicians are crooked, that every tourist will meet a terrorist, that all of Africa is starving. We lose sight of the productive workers, bumper harvests, honest public servants, and human generosity that dominate the Soviet media but are to our media just Not News.
There’s no question about which set of media I prefer. I think Americans are the best-informed people in the world, or at least they can be, if they make use of the diverse news sources available to them. But I have to keep reminding myself that the free press I respect and depend on is not unbiased. To see the world whole I have to read between the lines as the Soviets do, factoring in not cynicism, but optimism and trust, a little faith in humanity, an awareness that much of the world, much of the time, is not making news.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1986