Posted in Behind the News

Chernobyl anniversary produces AP exclusives

, by Paul Colford

The 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster prompted AP journalists in Eastern Europe to produce disturbing environmental stories near the site in Ukraine and also from Mayak, the scene of at least two of Russia’s worst nuclear accidents dating from the late 1940s.

Senior Managing Editor for International News John Daniszewski recounted the backstory in this staff memo:

Covering an anniversary sometimes is like eating your vegetables: You do it because you feel you should. But years after an event, it’s impossible to find news, right? Wrong, as an AP team in Eastern Europe showed. As the 30th anniversary of Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear accident, approached, that team set out to break news, and they did. The results are the Beat of the Week.
Natalya Vetrova sleeps holding a bottle with fresh cow milk at home in Zalyshany, 53 km (32 miles) southwest of the destroyed reactor of the Chernobyl plant, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov)
First, Minsk-based reporter Yuras Karmanau and roving cross-format journalist Mstyslav Chernov told the poignant story of Ukrainian children living near the Chernobyl disaster site who are going hungry because the cash-strapped government cancelled their free school lunch program. With their only source of radiation-free food gone, they have been forced to forage for contaminated mushrooms and berries in the woods, or eat food their families grow in the radioactive soil.Rates of radiation-linked illnesses in this new generation are tragically high. The images of these children, eating at the family dinner table and being treated at the hospital, were heart-breaking.Then, Karmanau and Minsk photojournalist Sergei Grits visited the Belarussian side of the contaminated zone and showed how a government eager to drive its export economy has opened up radioactive soil to farming and ranching.After accepting a glass of milk from a farmer, Karmanau and Grits sent it to a government lab, which showed it had levels of a radioactive isotope 10 times higher than the national food safety limit. That milk is used to make cheese for export to Russia. Grits captured both photos and video that brought home the hardscrabble life of farmers in the radioactive region.Finally, in a follow-up after the anniversary, Moscow-based Katherine Jacobsen and video journalist Iulia Subbotovska charted the nuclear legacy of Mayak, site of at least two of Russia’s worst nuclear accidents dating from the late 1940s, and found locals today still living along a radiation-tainted river. They took a Geiger counter to the banks to show how toxic the area is today.

Karmanau had long followed the story of Chernobyl, whose radioactive cloud poisoned part of his native Belarus. His leads came from in-depth knowledge and local contacts, giving him the stories of the children in Ukraine and the radioactive food exports in Belarus.
Sensitive field reporting provided color and compelling visuals, while Moscow’s Jim Heintz pulled together the information and reported out the science to make sure AP was on solid footing, painstakingly cross-checking the evidence with global researchers.The pieces moved with robust illustrations designed for social media, including pull-out quotes, YouTube videos and stacks on Usage was impressive: The stories ran in the New York Times, The Washington Post, ABC and NBC; the BBC interviewed Heintz. On AP Mobile, the first piece had a strong showing, while the second hit the No. 1 slot on the day and No. 5 for the week with more than 44,000 views. Regional news media in Ukraine, Russia and even authoritarian Belarus also gave AP unusual exposure.For taking a routine anniversary and turning it into a series of exclusives, Karmanau, Chernov, Grits, Heintz, Jacobsen and Subbotovska earn this week’s prize.