How different news organizations covered the Kursk submarine disaster
The giant Russian nuclear submarine Kursk sunk on Saturday, August 12 in the Barents Sea during its training exercise. All, 118 crewmembers died aboard. Russian officials described the disaster as “the worst” and a “catastrophe that developed at lightning speed.” News organizations around the world picked up this subject immediately after officials announced that something had happened to the Kursk. The way Russian officials handled news distribution to the public influenced process of news gathering and dissemination in the media.
For the Moscow Times*, a daily newspaper published in Moscow, it was big national news with some international perspective. For CNN, an American cable TV network, it was sensational international news. Both organizations developed a special news report section on their online versions to systematically cover the Kursk disaster.
The Moscow Times titled its special reports on this subject “The Kursk Tragedy” and one could get to them from the link on the front page. CNN named its in-depth specials “Death of the Kursk” and the link to them was on CNN.com/Europe**.
The purpose of this paper is to compare news coverage related to the Kursk on online versions of the Moscow Times and CNN. During the period between August 14 and November 8, The Moscow Times.com published 32 news pieces, while CNN.com posted 51 stories. This tragic event was developed as political, business and human story for both organizations.
What we know about the Kursk? Let’s check it by answering 5W-s and H questions.
When did it happen?
Both media outlets found out about the incident two days later it occurred because Russian officials belatedly released information. They initially reported that the Kursk lost contact on Sunday, August 13, and withheld information until Monday, August 14. That is why The Moscow Times and CNN put their first stories on this event on August 14 like all other news organizations in the world. Much news is dedicated just to clarify or confirm the date when the Kursk sunk. To confirm that both news organizations used third party information: The Norwegian Seismic Monitoring Center recorded two explosions occurring one after the other on Saturday, August 12. One explosion happened just before 11:30 a.m., followed by a more powerful blast two minutes, 15 seconds later. Russian officials have neither confirmed nor denied this timing.
Some days later, CNN.com got information from the New York Times, which quoted, unnamed senior intelligence officials and senior Navy officers. “Sonar tapes and other recordings captured sounds of two explosions believed to have sunk the Kursk, on August 12, killing all 118 people on board, contain the strongest evidence of the U.S. theory of a torpedo explosion”, confirmed these sources. Acoustical tapes were made by the American submarine USS Memphis which was one of two submarines spying on the major training exercise by Russian submarines in the Barents Sea. Sonar tapes from the Memphis were analyzed at the National Intelligence Center near Washington.
Another finding, this one a bit more personal, shed light on the last moments in the Kursk. A note was found in the pocket of Lt. Dmitry Kolesnikov, whose body was one of the first to be recovered from the Kursk. The Moscow Times wrote about it clearly while the Russia’s Navy commander, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov quoted the note as saying:
The time is 13:50. All the crew from sixth, seventh and eight compartments went over to the ninth. There are 23 people here. We made decision as a result of an accident. None of us can get to the surface. (By Sarah Karush, Note tells of 23 Sailors who lived, October 27, 2000)
The chief of staff of the Northern Fleet, Vice Admiral Mikhail Motsak said the note was written between 1:34 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. the day the submarine sank. He also said the 23 crew members moved into ninth compartment at 12:28 p.m.
As the above facts indicate three sides - Norwegian, American and Russian - matched in their determination of timing, and thus we can be relatively certain when the Kursk sunk.
Where did it happen?
Of course, almost everyone knows the answer to that – it sank in the Barents Sea. And yes, that is true. But CNN’s story on August 14 with a title “Russian submarine rescue bid under way”, tells us the exact location where the Kursk now lies at the bottom of the sea: “The submarine was listing some 60 degrees to the port side and was 85 miles from the naval base of Severomorsk.” Such detailed information is not found in the Moscow Times coverage. According to CNN, the reporter got this information from Russian news reports.
However, both CNN and The Moscow Times agreed that the warship is 110 meters below the sea surface.
What happened? Who did it?
The Kursk sank and many people died. Those facts are for certain. But some aspects of the disaster remain unknown. From the coverage on both websites, people learned that there were two explosions. However, still, to this day nobody knows what caused them.
The Moscow Times and CNN both have been following the event as it has developed, and their news coverage pretty much explains what happened after the disaster occurred. Russians attempted four times for the first week to rescue their sailors from the sunken sub, but they could not because of lacked equipment and trained divers. Then Norwegians came to rescue 10 days later. Unfortunately, the divers found no one alive and concluded all 118 sailors died. In addition, they found the front and hull of the Kursk seriously damaged and the sub fully flooded.
In October, the Norwegian and British came to recover corpses of sailors. The Norwegian helped to train Russian divers abroad. So, twelve divers worked together and recovered 12 bodies of Russian sailors of the Kursk. Poor weather and low-visibility prohibited them from working further. This news was covered by The Moscow Times and CNN, equally, and in a timely manner.
What will happen next? The Russian Government is planning to raise the Kursk next summer. Until then, the Russian navy will monitor the place where the Kursk sank.
Why did it happen?
Because nobody knows exactly what happened, no news organization can explain the reason why it happened. Russian officials suggested three main theories: a collision with a foreign submarine, World War II mine and torpedo malfunction. But they could not prove anything. Their assumptions and explanations were followed in most stories by the Moscow Times and CNN as well.
A lot of questions related to this event are still waiting answers. For instance, was it a collision with other object, such as a foreign submarine like Russian top naval officials are suggesting? Was it a malfunction torpedo, as some military experts from different countries say? (According to CNN Pentagon officials support this view). Did a cruiser named “Peter the Great” hit the Kursk like Berliner Zeitung, a German daily reported? Was it just flooding? Was it caused by a World War II mine?
How did it happen?
This question will be clear only after the “Why” questions answered. No single story from both organizations explained it, but they reported some views of sources that support one other theory of what happened.
Russia’s Navy commander, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov was one who was in hurry to announce that the Kursk collided with a foreign submarine, probably American or British. He said at one of the press briefings that he is 80 percent sure that collision happened. But he did not explain how the collision could happen. American and British officials denied this version just after his first statement. Two lawmakers from Duma, Alexei Mitrofanov and Nikolai Bezborodov suspected the USS Memphis was to blame. Mitrofanov said Moscow should appeal to President Bill Clinton and the U.S. Congress to allow an “external examination” of the Memphis. But Duma did not support them. So Russian officials cannot explain how the Kursk sank. However it is clear that most of crewmembers immediately died from the explosions and some of them survived two explosions, but they run of oxygen and died from poisoning by carbonic monoxide.
U.S. officials believe a rocket-propelled torpedo being loaded or launched as part of an exercise misfired, its engine or its fuel exploding. After two minutes and 15 seconds, a powerful explosion of the torpedo’s warhead tore a gaping hole in the submarine’s bow, killing most if not all of the crew instantly. This theory firstly was published in the New York Times and CNN duplicated it on August 29. Then CNN gave one more explanation to this theory on September 8. It says:
Pentagon officials said the United States does not know the cause of the blast, but speculation has centered on a problem with a new type of torpedo powered by liquid fuel.
The theory is the torpedoes’ liquid fuel system could explode in the torpedo tube, causing a chain reaction.
The Russian Red Star military newspaper reported the day after the accident that the Kursk had been carrying the liquid-fuel propelled torpedoes. It reported the Kursk captain had complained the new torpedoes were more dangerous than compressed air ones they replaced. (Jill Dougherty & Jamie Mclntyre. “Unstable weapon may set off explosion”)
Because of many unclear situations in this issue there are a lot of rumors, assumptions and speculations around this event are going on. One of them is a report of a German daily newspaper Berliner Zeitung. The Moscow Times and CNN both came to interpret this coverage.
As The Moscow Times reported on September 9:
The respected Berliner Zeitung daily said a cruise missile fired from the Peter the Great cruiser inadvertently homed in on the Kursk on Aug. 12. Peter the Great was the first ship to arrive at the site of the distressed submarine.
The newspaper cited an Aug. 31 report by the Federal Security Service to President Vladimir Putin as saying that a “Granit-type” cruise missile was launched from the ship and flew 20 kilometers before diving into the icy waters above the Kursk.
The missile had a new warhead designed to seek and destroy underwater targets, according to the report. The newspaper said the study was prepared under the supervision of FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev (By Simon Saradzhyan, “Report: Kursk Sunk by Warship Missile”)
Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov and Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev denied the allegations in the report. A Federal Security Service spokesman also called the German report “groundless.” According to experts, the Granit cruise missile is built to attack surface ships-not submarines. That is their main argument.
CNN’s story titled “Russia, U.S. agree ‘friendly fire’ did not sink Kursk,” said U.S. officials also skeptical of the German newspaper report.
Topics in news coverage
Topics vary from story to story. However, first of all the topic of rescue of sailors, then recovery of bodies became big topics for both media. In any disaster-oriented story, human issue is important. That is why there is no surprise that those topics were covered widely. It was difficult to know clearly whether Russian officials knew from the very beginning what happened to the Kursk and they deliberately misinformed media people or they truly did not know like others. However, both organizations tried to inform all steps in rescue and recovering operations.
The Moscow Times reported rescue operation until August 25; CNN reported until August 22. Actual rescue operation stopped on August 21. This difference in reporting can be explained by the type of the media. Since The Moscow Times is a newspaper, it focuses on deeper reporting (That is why its most stories are longer than CNN’s) and it came to the topic again to explain in depth how recovery operation had done. In contrast, CNN alerted as a wire service to give story timely in accordance with events. Nick Wrenn, editor of CNN.com/Europe wrote, “We updated our stories often minute by minute when the details were coming through. The deadline on the Internet is always now.”
Recovery was very emotional subject that people followed holding the breath. Quite many stories are dedicated by two organizations to this topic. CNN had more news quantitatively because it updated its news coverage frequently putting two and more stories a day when it gets even one detail to add to the already published story. There were 10 stories in The Moscow Times and 22 on CNN.com related to recovery operation. Sometimes, CNN gave a package of three or more news stories with various angles. For example, in the edition on August 24, there are four stories in one package:
· Radiation levels “normal” around the Kursk
· Russian officers “hampered rescue bid”
· Criminal inquiry launched
· Memorial services on land and sea
Each of those stories has a different aspect to the Kursk tragedy.
Besides above-mentioned main subjects (rescue and recovery) the following topics were covered by both organizations:
· Theories for reason
· Misinformation by Russian officials
· Vladimir Putin’s image
· Environmental fear
· Mourning of sailors
The Moscow Times did not cover what CNN informed:
· Sedated Kursk mother
· Criticism of Russian officials by Norwegians
· Russian Human right would sue Putin
· Memphis was analyzed
· Gorbachev and Chernobyl
CNN did not cover what The Moscow Times informed:
· How the compensation to the relatives was distributed
· Fund raising organizations on behalf of the Kursk sailors
Contrasts/Comparison in news coverage
War in Chechnya- Kursk disaster (CNN and MT)
Two media organizations came to compare the Kursk tragedy to the war in Chechnya because both disasters have some similarities and differences.
Both disasters took lives of many people: the Kursk 118 sailors and war in Chechnya some 2,700 soldiers.
Government control dominates in both cases because those are military and national security related issues.
The Kursk disaster got huge media attention and Chechnya has stayed mostly out of the media spotlight, partly because of public indifference. The war in Chechnya has strong popular support among Russians: They see it as necessary response to the lawlessness and violence that spilled out of the southern republic after it gained de facto independence in 1996. Russian forces returned to occupy Chechnya last autumn.
Compensation to the family of the Kursk crewmembers is 725, 000 rubles in addition to the standard package and payment to the family of soldiers is 6,000 rubles without any extra aid. This comes from different policy of the Russian Government to sailors or pilots from servicemen. A standard one-time payment to the family of a sailor or pilot is 120 times more than the payment to the servicemen’s family. Each family member receives an individual insurance payment of 25 times the servicemen’s salary. A separate payment is made to cover funeral costs.
The Russian public in general accused the discrimination policy against those who lost children in Chechnya or in army. Therefore it got the Moscow Times’ attention. In order to cover this topic, the newspaper quoted ordinary sources.
Tatyana Kruglova, whose son Anton was killed in Chechnya last year, said she found the difference between the payments to the Kursk families and the money she received hard to stomach. “When we heard what they were going to receive, we felt a little hurt,” she said. (Kevin O’Flynn. “Kursk Aid Attacked as Unfair”. September 2, 2000)
CNN.com used the AP story to show feeling of soldiers in Chechnya. Here is also use of ordinary sources.
Everyone is grieving for the sailors. As for us, no one gives a damn,” said Kolpakov, a 19-year old sergeant, his weather-beaten face twisted by emotion. “Two weeks ago, our company lost 14 men and who mourned for them? A colonel shouted at us and said it was our own fault. (By AP. “Russian soldiers say public forgot Chechnya”. September 1, 2000. 4:27 a.m.)
The Kursk and the Komsomolets submarine
This comparison is done by only CNN. In one of its very first stories, CNN wrote as a background that the Russian navy suffered another nuclear submarine disaster in Barents Sea in 1989. By that time, the crew of the Komsomolets abandoned that vessel after a series of electrical fires broke out. A total 42 Russian sailors died in that incident. CNN might have very good archive to use for reporting and remind important events in the past.
This comparison is in CNN’s coverage. Even though the image of the Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the hot issues in the coverage of the Kursk tragedy, the Moscow Times never mentioned about Chernobyl disaster. By contrast, CNN reminded about Gorbachev and Chernobyl twice when it reported about Putin’s image.
CNN.com writer Douglas Herbert wrote from London:
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev waited 18 days in 1886 to issue his ringing verdict about the lessons of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the world’s worst nuclear accident and an event many experts, in hindsight, believe, believe hastened the Communist collapse.
Similarly, President Vladimir Putin, the second freely elected president of an independent Russia, remained silent for five days this week before addressing the fate of the 118-man crew stranded in a crippled submarine at the bottom of the Barents Sea. (August 18, 2000. 14:32 GMT)
In another story putting on the CNN.com, AP quoted personally Gorbachev when he came to New York.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet president attacked for his delay in commenting on the Chernobyl disaster 14 years ago, has criticized Vladimir Putin for his handling of the Kursk submarine tragedy. He said the Russian president’s errors were “mistakes of style” and that Putin’s initial response, which came four days after the Kursk tragedy, was “inadequate. (August 18, 2000. 14:32 GMT)
It is ironical. Using Gorbachev as a source is important, but when he started to criticize Putin for delaying information is irony.
The navy’s Soviet style of reluctance to provide information influenced very much news coverage specially using sources. Their way of handling information has kept regular bias in stories of both organizations toward official sources. In this sense, reporting of the Kursk tragedy reminds reporting during wartime, where it is difficult to use both or many sides of sources.
The Table 1 (page 14) shows that media organizations used mostly Russian officials as sources. It is because of the main object involved into this story was a Russian submarine that was taking modern weapons about which other countries did not know. This relation to the military secrecy made reporters dependable on Russian official sources that were extremely reluctant to give information. CNN’s Nick Wrenn confessed that their weakness in reporting of this event was limited access to Russian sources. As he wrote “Details in the early days were often slow to emerge. Later the Russian authorities were more forthcoming in briefing the world’s media.”
Another important source for reporters was the media itself. Reporters of various news organizations gathered information at the same press conferences from the same sources. If reporters did not attend the briefings, they got wire services to get background material like facts, figures and quotes. The Moscow Times’ reporter Kevin O’Flynn wrote that access to sources of information was through wires, ringing up press office of Navy and people in Vidaevo. Using AP stories made news coverage of totally different news organizations: The Moscow times and CNN, in many cases similar. Hence, most of news stories are “borrowed news” in either media. Especially, in October and November, when the interest to this event is declined, CNN started to rely mostly on AP and the Moscow Times on Reuters. (See Table 2 on the page 14)
Because it was military issue, reporters used many unnamed sources. Mostly Pentagon officials and one foreign expert were in anonymity in stories by CNN. Some military people, many experts and one ordinary person were unidentified sources in stories by The Moscow Times.
The Kursk submarine disaster was one of the biggest events of the year that got international resonance. Dependence on Russian official sources made reports of various organizations similar. However, different news organizations tried to cover the event from their own perspective.
From the Moscow Times and CNN’s coverage on this issue, I got an impression that tradition of Cold war coverage is still there. People’s minds have not changed much because Russian officials were seeking the reason from outside, not from inside. Americans also were too much critical to Russians like it was during the Cold War period. Media organizations were silent in early stage of development of the story. Just after official announcement that all crewmembers died, spin-doctors went to work. Journalists as products of own society experienced this old tradition once again in their work.
P.S. * - The Moscow Times is a newspaper published by the Independent Press, the foreign investment company in Russia. It launched in 1992 and went on online in 1997. Stories in the paper version and on online do not differ between each other. Readership of The Moscow Times is the foreign community and Russian business people. The newspaper has an international staff that practices western standard of journalism. Therefore, the paper is an objective, reliable source for English-language news on business, politics and culture. To read stories on the Kursk disaster visit http://www.themoscowtimes.com and click on the title on the right The Kursk Tragedy.
** - CNN.com/Europe is one of the 14 web sites of CNN. It is based in London. This edition of CNN gives global news but with a European perspective. Team of 25 people: writers, copy editors and multimedia people work for this site. Text style is different to TV bulletins in that the hardest news angle comes right at the top. They also write in British English, not American English. Stories on the Kursk disasters posted on online did not aired on TV. In terms of covering this subject, the main contact person was Jill Dougherty, the bureau chief of CNN in Moscow. To read stories on the Kursk tragedy visit http://www.europe.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2000/submarine or do search writing just two words “Kursk submarine”.
December 15, 2000