Views And Reviews

Chernobyl and the media

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: (Published 16 July 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:208
  1. T B Brewin

    The ironic thing about the seemingly endless coverage of the 1986 Chernobyl accident - and the relatively harmless, because much diluted, radiation that then blew around the world - is that, with few exceptions, the media have done more injury to the truth than was ever done by cover up or whitewash. Does it matter? I think it does.

    Television is the worst offender. At the end of his memoirs Robin Day writes of television's “inherent tendency to distort.” Never has this been better demonstrated than in the years since Chernobyl. Firstly, there were the shots of beautiful scenery, supposedly “uncontaminated” - natural radiation is forgotten - until Chernobyl. Then came the masks, the warning signs, Geiger counters clicking, and the chilling impression - helped by suitably scary background music - of invisible contamination by mysterious, evil radiation. Someone is sent to find and photograph a child with leukaemia and another to find a child with a birth defect. Such tragedies occur all over the world and presumably always have done. But when Chernobyl is being discussed the visual impact is unforgettable. Any reasonable sense of proportion goes out of the window and little or nothing is done to explain either the need for numbers and percentages in order to make a comparison of incidence or the basic facts about radiation - natural or artificial, concentrated or dilute.

    Selective and misleading reporting of the dangers of radiation started before Chernobyl but then became even worse. It is not a conspiracy or the result of pressure by any lobby. It seems to be just the operation of a free market, combined with a popular thirst for dramatic news of disasters, wrong ideas about two emotional subjects - cancer and radiation - and a misguided idea of the link between nuclear power …

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