An image of three people gazing at a powerful explosion mushrooming in the distance is too good not to be used in a story about a mysterious rocket engine failure that sparked speculation about a Russian doomsday weapon.
An explosion during a rocket engine test in Russia last week, which claimed five lives and apparently caused small radiation spikes detected in a nearby city, has sent the media rumor mill into overdrive. While Russian officials are reluctant to offer much detail about what was tested, except that some radioactive material was involved, speculation suggests it was Russia’s lauded nuclear-powered Burevestnik cruise missile, or Skyfall, as NATO chose to designate it.
Speculation aside, covering this story poses a certain challenge: which picture to take to run with the story. After all, it all happened in the middle of nowhere, and hence no visuals are available. AP opted for a photo of a Russian family looking from a hill at a city as a large glowing mushroom billows into the sky.
It’s great and has nothing to do with the incident in the Arkhangelsk region in Russia’s north. The photo actually shows Achinsk, a Siberian city, that had to be evacuated due to a large fire that destroyed a nearby ammo depot on August 5. AP’s choice of picture is probably justified, after all the news agency mentioned that disaster in the background of its story.
But a few news cycles and permutations later some readers and viewers in the US probably believe that that explosion was some kind of nuclear blast (and that Russians are really badass since they treat one as a spectacle rather than a reason to panic).
Ever vigilant Russia-watcher Rachel Maddow, for example, showed the AP story in her latest episode about the mysterious rocket and how the Kremlin must be crazy to try what the US already tried and failed at with their Project Pluto in the 1960s.
“The Russian government ultimately let it be known: OK this wasn’t just any sort of rocket that had exploded, this was some sort of nuclear explosion involving a missile,” Maddow told her viewers. It was not, and there have been no nuclear explosions in either Russia or the US for decades, of course. But accurate wordings probably don’t go down well with the ‘Russia nuclear threat’ narrative MSNBC want to convey, so no surprise about that.
On Tuesday the media mutation process reached its logical conclusion, with Al Jazeera rolling out its report on the incident, complete with close-ups of what happened in Achinks with a caption stating: “The blast was seen and filmed from many kilometers aways”. The Siberian city was not mentioned once.
So, no, Al Jazeera, the Russian family you showed is not looking at a nuclear explosion over their city. As a certain world leader might say, you are fake news!
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