The Western world's exasperation over the lack of early information on the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in the Soviet Union reflects a different expectation and approach to news and information gathering, say a group of eminent Soviet journalists. Their American counterparts disagree sharply. They say frustration stems from a legitimate concern that information was being withheld by Moscow, information that could affect the safety and health of residents both in the Soviet Union and in Eastern and Western Europe.
These comments came at a New York conference last week which analyzed news coverage of each other by the Soviet Union and the United States, and was sponsored by the Alerdinck Foundation in the Netherlands and New York University's Center for War, Peace, and the News Media.
Soviet journalists defended the way information was reported after the accident in the Ukraine, and they used the event to criticize Western media. Vladimir Lomeiko, chief spokesman for the Soviet Foreign Ministry, said the coverage has had an anti-Soviet slant. They also accused the Western press of ``a certain superiority complex'' and of ``almost gloating'' about the tragic accident.
Lawrence K. Grossman, president of NBC News, said there was a certain truth to Soviet complaints that some US media can go too quickly with inadequate information. But he said there was no delight taken in terms of the US concern over the accident in the Ukraine. And he pointed out that the day before the conference, there was not a single mention of the accident on Soviet television, despite the fact that there was still worldwide concern.
One Soviet journalist did admit that sometimes information is released too slowly and too carefully, but he said that the government does not want people to panic. The journalist noted that there is a very different media environment in the US and the Soviet Union.
Bad news in the US is a major weapon in attracting viewers, and is told as soon a possible, said Mr. Lomeiko. In the case of the nuclear power plant in the Ukraine, the Soviets did not want to rush bad news before it was totally substantiated, according to the journalists.
Those villages and towns in danger were speedily evacuated, said Leonid Kravchenko, first deputy chairman of the Soviet state committee for radio and television. The immediate response was to take care of people and victims. Only then should information become a concern, he added.
When the Soviet Union gave information that was ``reliable and true,'' said Lomeiko, the West rejected it. Two people were reported dead, and the Western media ``did not like it'' and cited a figure of 2,000. Lomeiko says he would call the higher figure ``irresponsible information, and we repudiate this kind of approach.''
When asked about the gap of time -- at least 48 hours -- that the Soviet Union kept silent Lomeiko said the Soviet Union informed the Soviet public and the world about the tragedy as soon as they learned of its scope.
Lomeiko said the Soviet people also have a different tradition regarding grief, and when someone dies in a family, ``we do not hurry to open doors and scream for everyone to run and look. . . . Sometimes we are struck by the lack of tact the American mass media displays.''