Journalists, At Risk, Whether They Know It or Not: Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi

03/18/2011 03:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Moscow in 1990 and '91, I was working with Tass trying to help the Soviet news agency transform itself from a propaganda factory into a straightforward press agency. Our first step, because it was the easiest, was an attempt to convert Tass photos into the world's first digital photo press service. Gorbachev's overthrow ended that effort, but during the process I came to know Valery Zufarov, one of Tass' star photographers, who was beginning to show the effects of the radiation he had been exposed to while covering the Chernobyl disaster.

Five years later, Zufarov was dead, but his coverage of Chernobyl survives him. You will find three of his aerial photos (numbers 69, 70 and 72) here.

The photos were taken from a helicopter, and when the copter landed, "Zufarov had to have his head shaved because of the contamination," according to The Chernobyl Record: The Definitive Record of the Chernobyl Catastrophe. Within five years he was being treated for a blood cancer. Zufarov had been accompanied by two other Taas journalists, Oleg Moskovsky and Igor Itkin. All three of them were dead within ten years of the disaster. Itkin had been head of the Moscow news desk for Tass, and, as he was dying, he told my Tass contact and friend, Igor Makurin, that his greatest regret was that he "could work only three hours a day."

All the journalists in and around the Japanese reactors have put themselves at risk, and they are heroes whether they know it or not.