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How to get better reporting in times of technological crisis

MIKHAIL Gorbachev has a point. The Western press has sometimes needlessly hyped the Chernobyl disaster story. But that's what one would expect, given the dearth of reliable information on the accident from the Soviet Union. In fact, the errors and distortions illustrate the problem the press generally has in covering a world-class disaster when there is little direct information and sifting fact from rumor takes a certain technical expertise few news people may have.

That foolish wire story reporting 2,000 immediate deaths near the reactor wasn't repeated by print and electronic media to ``slander'' the Soviet Union. How were news people, untrained in arcane, reactor-accident analyses, to suspect that report? Most of them backed off quickly when American and European experts explained why such a massive death toll seemed unlikely.

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Indeed, the ineptness of the news media in handling the Chernobyl story reflects a larger social problem. It's the problem of how society itself handles information related to useful but potentially dangerous technology.

Too often, experts who know the most about the technology remain aloof from the public debate about it until a disaster strikes. Then they wonder why press and public tend not to listen to them. Too often, the public has been deliberately misled by its own government as to the dangers of the technology. As the lies eventually come out, the press, reflecting public attitudes, becomes increasingly suspicious of official reassurances.

Such things create an adversarial climate that favors distortion in news reporting and commentary. Here, the continuing controversy over nuclear power in Western Europe and the United States is a leading example. When the Chernobyl unit exploded, the Western press was already primed to believe the worst. Soviet reluctance to admit the accident fed press suspicions. But the press would have been wary of official information about a nuclear accident in Europe or North America as well.

To begin with, you don't have to look to the Soviet Union for lack of candor. The French press and public have just been sharply reminded of this by the reluctance of their government to admit that Chernobyl fallout had reached their country. Alain Madelin, minister of industry, telecommunications, and tourism, called it a ``problem in the translation of information.'' The fact is, officials lied, ostensibly to allay fear, and their people know it.

Britons also know their government has lied from time to time about such serious nuclear matters as radioactive pollution from its Sellafield (formerly Windscale) plutonium reactors and fuel reprocessing plant. The British government's quite justified indignation at the Chernobyl pollution must seem ironic to citizens who have just seen their own Parliament accuse the government of making the Irish Sea the most radioactive large body of water on the planet.

Likewise, reports of lax safety and secret release of radioactive gases from US government nuclear facilities, even though the latter occurred many years ago, shake confidence in America.

The Western press would be remiss if it were not suspicious of official statements regarding nuclear safety and, especially, of official silence during an obvious disaster. This suspicion promotes acceptance of rumor and incorrect information, often on the theory that if the government denies something, it must be at least partly true.

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A distorted view of expert opinion also aids bad reporting. Experts can blame themselves, in part, for this. Most of the knowledgeable nuclear engineers and scientists have left the public debate to antinuclear advocates. So when the press needs an expert in a hurry, it's prone to turn to the ``anti-nukes,'' as political scientists S. Robert Lichter of George Washington University and Stanley Rothman of Smith College have documented.

They recently explained in an article in this newspaper that they find that experts endorse the safety of US nuclear power plants by a 6-to-1 margin. Yet they also find that antinuclear scientists are much more willing to go public with their views than are nuclear power supporters. This compounds distorted reporting in a press that Lichter and Rothman judge to be more willing to hear the anti-nuke rather than the ``pro nuke'' messages. This, too, makes the press prey to exaggerated fears and distorted information.

The press has to answer for its own faults, including the sensationalism of some of the Chernobyl reporting. Nevertheless, more truth-in-government and more constructive public involvement by nuclear power experts would do much to establish a social climate in which the press could better serve everyone when an emergency arises.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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