Ethics Be Damned: South Korean Journalism Fails

by

I am from South Korea, but I make it a point not to write or speak in Korean about this country. That my Korean language skills have ossified from disuse is only one reason; it is more that my brushes with South Korean media are rarely uplifting.

A case in point: A little more than one year ago, I wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times about the Park Geun-hye administration’s ill-conceived plan to introduce mandatory state-produced history textbooks.

Not long after that, I received a call from someone who claimed to be with the foreign ministry. I was too busy to talk then and there, so I told him I would call him back. When I dialed his number a half hour later, however, no one answered. Neither he nor anyone else claiming to be with the South Korean government called again.

I recounted this experience first in a Facebook post, and then in a short essay on Korea Exposé. That should have been the end of the matter, but soon a South Korean news site Media Today contacted me, asking to interview me about the exchange. When I declined the request, they asked whether they could still write about it.

It’s a free country, so I said why not.

Freedom must mean different things to different journalists though, because the article Media Today published was free to the point of being in flagrant violation of what I consider to be basic codes of journalism. It went: “It has been revealed that [the foreign ministry] attempted to exert pressure on a media outlet that wrote an opinion piece critical of the South Korean government.”

To back up her claim of state repression, the reporter provided no evidence beyond my own summary of what had transpired. There was no indication that she had made any attempt to speak to the foreign ministry to determine whether one of its employees had in fact called me, and if so, to what end.

Media Today is supposed to be a reputable news site, one that began as a publication of the National Union of Media Workers, but its reporter was making an argument on the basis of a single source, i.e. yours truly. I could easily have been lying, but no effort was made to verify the facts I had presented. That my encounter fit their agenda – pro-media freedom, anti-government, ‘progressive’ – was obviously enough for them to justify printing the story.

Since then, I get visibly tense when I see my name in South Korean media or a local reporter contacts me. Ethics is in short supply in South Korea’s journalism business. Papers routinely write up allegations without proof. They run paid contents without divulging the arrangement. Opinion pieces are dressed up as news articles. Too many sources are anonymous, even when there are no justifiable reasons. I do not wish to be part of this game.

(For an excellent summary of some of the problems that ail South Korean journalism, read John Power’s “Korea’s Media Malaise.”)

Recently, someone I know got into trouble precisely for pointing out one example of South Korean media’s ethical lapse. (Full disclosure: His name is Park Sanghyun and he works for Korea Exposé’s partner firm, Mediati.)

Earlier this week, a reporter from the cable TV station JTBC located Chung Yoo-ra, the daughter of President Park Geun-hye’s confidante Choi Soon-sil, in Denmark. After failing to get Chung to speak to him, the JTBC reporter called the local police to arrest her and reported on the development as an exclusive.

After watching this news segment, Park wrote in a widely circulated essay: “I believe that yesterday evening JTBC irreversibly opened up journalism’s equivalent of Pandora’s box.”

He argued that a reporter’s role is to observe and report on a story, not to be an active participant.

More crucially, he rightly pointed out the obvious conflict of interest in this case: By facilitating a dramatic development in a story that is gripping the nation, the reporter and JTBC unquestionably benefited from the attention.

(Rules that forbid such conflicts of interest abound in many fields. Art historians, for instance, share the understanding that they should not purchase the objects they study, as their scholarly research can drive up the value of said objects.)

Yet since the essay went public, Park has been inundated with criticism, with nearly 12,000 comments on the popular portal site Daum alone. Much of the anger at him reflects the curious perception — seemingly shared widely — that Jeong’s arrest is in the interest of the public and journalists’ job should be to act as agents of justice. Some internet users have derided Park as being “sage-like,” in the sense of preaching principles without concern for how the real world works.

Theirs is an alarming perspective: that serving a cause should be more important for journalists than being honest, independent storytellers. Do South Koreans really think that the end justifies the means? A woman the nation despises has been brought into custody thanks to JTBC, so does that mean no legitimate complaint can be lodged against the manner in which the detention unfolded?

I wonder if Media Today might say something similar in response to my complaint about their article: The Park Geun-hye administration, a repressive regime no doubt, deserves all the criticism one can muster, so why fuss over something as mundane as fact-checking when running an article that illustrates how deplorable this government is?

In all fairness to South Korean reporters and media outlets, it must be said that the public share the blame when it comes to undermining journalistic integrity. Back in 2014, an independent citizen-funded internet news site Newstapa published a series on prominent candidates running for seats in the National Assembly. Though Newstapa is heavily left-leaning, one figure it chose to scrutinize was Kwon Eun-hee, a former policewoman who became a progressive icon by accusing her superiors of covering up the national spy agency’s interference in the 2012 presidential election that Park Geun-hye won.

In the run up to the 2014 election, Newstapa showed that Kwon and her husband had engaged in questionable real estate dealings and had underreported their assets in the course of Kwon’s registration as a political candidate.

Kwon still won her seat in the city of Gwangju. But the backlash against Newstapa was intense. The so-called progressive supporters of Newstapa threatened to cancel their subscriptions on the ground that a liberal media outlet’s purpose is to help defeat conservatives, not to besmirch one of their own. The message was clear: Journalists shouldn’t serve truth if it harms the cause readers believe in.

Park Sanghyun was courageous in critiquing the JTBC reporter’s conduct. The station has achieved cult status in South Korea after obtaining a tablet computer that has become a crucial piece of evidence in the Choi Soon-sil/Park Geun-hye scandal. Enough South Koreans now revere JTBC’s President of News and main anchor Sohn Suk-hee as the only trusted source of news. Some would even view any criticism of JTBC as a conservative plot at best and undiluted blasphemy at worst.

What these self-styled supporters of the free press do not seem to realize is that their passion is reducing journalists to partisan hacks and tabloid reporters. When news consumers don’t hold journalism to a higher standard, there is very little reason for reporters to do better. South Koreans frequently grumble that reporters are nothing more than giregi – a term that combines “journalist” with “trash” – but continue to accept the industry’s shortcomings, because readers want news that simply serves their convictions, not journalism that might expose unpalatable truths, nor journalists who play by strict codes of ethics.

(This, of course, is now a universal problem in the age of fake news and social media where like-minded friends and followers exchange only stories that confirm their existing views.)

In a coda to the story of Chung Yoo-ra’s arrest, the Associated Press reported this week that a judge in Denmark was strongly considering legal steps against South Korean reporters for breaking local law. The country forbids filming inside a courtroom but South Korean reporters did precisely that, talking to Chung for minutes on tape and broadcasting the interview footage for consumption back in South Korea.

I am sure many of those same reporters will say they broke the local law in a quest to satisfy the South Korean “public’s right to know.” The incident nevertheless raises a point that is bound to be uncomfortable for South Koreans to contemplate: What they believe to be an acceptable practice of reporting here does not fly everywhere else. One country’s journalism can be another country’s criminal action, or worse, just plain garbage.

Cover Image: A screen capture from JTBC’s exclusive report on Chung Yoo-ra’s arrest, with the caption “JTBC reporters called police, fearing [Chung’s] escape.” (Source: JTBC)

Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Inside Higher Ed among other publications.

  • Benjamin Wagner

    Excellent article. There’s much more that could be said on this topic. I hope you consider writing more on it, but can understand any reluctance. The roles of the Korean Press Ethics Commission and Korean Press Arbitration Commission (PAC) are worth looking at. I’ve dealt with both in the past and found them fairly toothless and indifferent.

  • Richard Murray

    An excellent piece. Thank you.

  • augustine

    1) “He argued that a reporter’s role is to observe and report on a story, not to be an active participant.”
    –> The writer is developing the logic under the premise that the above argument is correct, but he does not provide a basis for why it is right. Is it really indisputable ?

    2) “Much of the anger at him reflects the curious perception — seemingly shared widely — that Jeong’s arrest is in the interest of the public and journalists’ job should be to act as agents of justice.”
    –> I do not agree with that claim. People do not think that reporters should act as apostles of justice, but they seem to think that they may intervene in the events if the intervention itself is disclosed properly.

    • Mike

      1) Yes it really is indisputable. If reporters become active participants in a story, how can they ever report on it in anything approaching an unbiased manner?

      (not that being unbiased really seems to be of much concern to the media here)

  • I keep getting flashbacks of 2008 when I read this. Good piece.

  • Mohd Shukri Hajinoor

    An excellent piece. I would concur that media coverage in Korea is partly helping the Parliament – after public uproar – having to impeach President Park Geun-Hye. The trigger was the “mysterious seven hours” of Park’s absence from attending to the Sewol ferry tragedy. But that absence might have reflected her misjudgment at best or her incompetency at worse. As the impeachment is now in the hands of the Constitutional Court whether to uphold it, it must be clear that, putting her misjudgment or incompetency that I mentioned aside, the Court must decide whether Park’s link to Choi Soo-Sil has benefited Park politically, monetarily, and in anyway that breaches the Constitution. The case is already judged before it is in court due to media coverage!

  • Landlady

    With all due respect, aren’t you a bit naïve to think or assume that all of us consume news without questioning inherent benefactor and conflict of interest that exists in journalism – as it does in all sectors of our society including the government, politics, academia, corporations, religion, businesses, etc., etc.?

    Ethics in journalism is an idea that only exists in ivory towers of academia, not in today’s commercial and consumption society. As just as major global news outlets are controlled by major media corporations, (NewsCorp, AP, Reuters, AFP, Time Warner, Comcast, etc.) its board and shareholders, every other news outlets must cater to its readers for their survival through each clicks, selling ad spaces, subscriptions, and donations – even for your beloved NYT and Korea Exposé.

    It’s just not in Korea, but in UK, France, Germany, Japan, and the U.S. you’ll readily find spectrum of news organizations working for their bottom line, or promoting their readers’ agenda, often reflecting its citizens and political spectrum of each country without ethics.

    So, whether JTBC illegally produces its own news or not, let’s drop all pretense and the notion of journalism ever having ethics or holding themselves to a higher standard in the first place. That’s akin to saying all religions have morals, or all politicians are there to serve the public. As you’ve stated, “Ethics is in short supply in South Korea’s journalism business.” It’s all a BUSINESS!

    • John B

      Very good point by Landlady. I also think this article is a bit naive and takes a perspective based on academic ifeals rather than reality.

      Heretofore, South Korean media has been so censored by the government (under threat of retaliation) that the Korean people have been thirsting for a source that will expose the massive corruption at the elite level. Indeed, many good reporters lost their jobs and had their careers and lives ruined by corrupt government agencies – who firmly control intelligence, industry, and the prosecutor’s office. Some even lost their lives.

      South Korea is very first world in many ways, but it is also very third world when it comes to government corruption. Until October 2016, government’s power over the media and judiciary, combined with a powerful economy, made for ideal conditions for obscene corruption and scandals that push the limits of absurdity.

      Initially, small internet news channels (mostly founded by disgruntled reporters from traditional news channels) tried to expose the corruption that was being covered up by traditional media, but they were discredited by the government and the corrupt power elites as “tabloid” trash.

      It was JTBC that first dared to challenge the government and the power elites by revealing the smoking-gun evidence in president Park’s current scandal. It was a watershed moment in Korean journalism and, to the delight of over 95% of the Korean people (Park currently has 4% approval), ALL other news outlets (including news outlets that traditionally served as mouthpieces of the government) found the courage to join in. Thanks to JTBC’s courageous lead, there is a “safety in numbers” mindset in news outlets these days, and the new media feels free to report the truth and be safe from retaliation.

      That is why JTBC is so highly valued as a gem in Korean journalism, and that is why the Korean people are so protective over JTBC reporters and Sukhee Sohn – despite the controversy in Denmark.

      Yes, the situation in Denmark was not reporting at its finest, but the Korean people agree with the urgency of the situation – to turn the fugitive in to the authorities (since the Korean government was doing very little – for obvious reasons).

      For the above reasons, Korean people are, for the moment, deaf to anyone criticizing JTBC reporters under the ambiguous notion of journalustic “ethics” (a notion that arguably no longer exists in any country with increasing commercialization of news). Under the current circumstances, the Korean people see such criticism and invocation of “ethics” as a surrogate argument pushed by the extreme right (i.e. pro-government faction) to distract from the on-going impeachment investigation/trial.

      The Korean people are in a revolution of sorts against a government that breached ALL ethical rules and laws to restrict media from reporting of truth to the people, and the Korean people will be damned if they are going to bring a knife to a gun fight.

      Discussion on strict adherence to journalistic “ethics” will have to wait for another day in Korea – a day when everyone plays by the same “ethical” rules.

      • Luke

        Very fair point. It’d be nice if a society could advance in a morally-holistic kind of fashion, but advancing in any measure is better than none at all.

        Pick your battles, more or less.

  • Juan

    Korean names are confusing at best. Please stay consistent with Chung vs Jeong.

  • pyrrhus

    This is a poorly thought-out piece. The idea that journalists shouldn’t be active participants means journalists shouldn’t seek to create news where there is no news. For example, you don’t put a bomb on a passenger airplane so you’d be able to write about an airplane explosion.

    But if you are sure there’s a passenger boarding an airplane with a bomb, what should you do? Write about it but not tip it to the police? Would you still argue there was a conflict of interest if the reporter told the police about the bomb to prevent the explosion and then wrote about his experience? That’s no conflict of interest. That’s called being morally responsible and satisfying the public right to know.

    Don’t let your bias toward the Korean media cloud your judgment on individual cases. Not all of them are as unethical and unintelligent as you make them seem to be. You should also try to remember that despite all the ugliness and irregularities in the Korean media, some of them have been able to break through overwhelming barriers and write stories that eventually led to the impeachment of a president. Give a little credit, rather than pick on one case that is being totally misinterpreted.

    • John B

      I couldn’t agree with you more.

    • M

      The issue at hand isn’t that they reported her to the police, the issue is that this reporter attempted to get an exclusive interview, couldn’t, then reported her to the police and reported on that as a story.
      This isn’t an ivory tower problem, this is an “everything for the story” problem.
      In the case of your bombing scenario, it’d be like taking a few minutes to ask the bomber for an interview before reporting him/her to the authorities.

      • vforv

        do you have evidence the reporter reported her to the police because he didn’t get an exclusive interview? the reporter got a tip the woman was in the house and tried to confirm it on his own. If she opened the door, the reporter would have initiated an interview, but wouldn’t this be a natural course of action for any journalist? If she sat down for an interview, I think the reporter should still ask her why she wasn’t surrendering herself and make it very clear from the beginning that he faces the moral obligation to report a fugitive to the authorities. In other words, he should get explicit consent from her that she agrees to an interview even if he would report her to the authorities because of the risk of flight. Now none of this happened because the woman simply refused to open the door and reveal herself. Thus only the moral obligation as a citizen to report a criminal suspect remained.

        All this is open to debate of course. There are no set rules on issues like in journalism. All one can do is exercise the best judgment he/she could in the given situation and I see signs that JTBC did what it could. It may not have been perfect, but it wasn’t a bad call, either. He doesn’t deserve to be described as an unethical reporter reporting someone to the police because he was unhappy about not getting an interview. It’s not a simple issue, but this article certainly deals with it like it is.

  • H.K.

    Of course, media organizations in South Korea have many shortcomings — i.e. lack of verification, tendency to hide behind anonymous sources, and in some cases value-oriented, not fact-oriented, reporting — but the points you’ve raised in this article seem to generalize that all the Korean media lack the ethics of journalism and thus are sub-standard.
    The media in Korea, like in any country in the world, have good and bad. And readers in Korea, like in any country, like to hear what they want to hear from their news sources and choose their newspapers and television channels accordingly.
    As a former journalist, I am proud of the fact that there are many responsible, independent-minded journalists in my country – – Remember it was the Korean journalists who investigated and exposed the sham of the disgraced stem-cell scientist Hwang Woo-seok, while the public and the government just worshipped him and the foreign academia failed to verify his research?
    Your pieces gives me food for thought and many points I cannot but agree with, but I’d like to caution against generalization.

  • Rescue Korea

    Jtbc is absolute rubbish now that it concealed facts by saying that a desktop PC is a laptop. For this reason, not few average people were in the street. The manipulation was already revealed by a Korean watcher of journalism. Jtbc abandoned its role as an authentic journal.

  • The whole idea of ‘ethics’ in journalism is controversial at best. (think about gonzo journalism and all). What is your opinion on this article, Mr.Koo?
    http://slownews.kr/60887
    (It’s written in 한글)

  • 한글로 써서 죄송합니다. 얼마전에 태극기집회중 여성기자분과 얼떨결에 인터뷰하고
    이런 신문? 잡지? 를 알게 됬네요.
    현재 한국의 언론은 모든 사건의 기획 연출
    그리고 자기들이 지어내걸로 토론하고 칼럼쓰고 이상해요. 이제 사건에 대해 판결까지하는 법원까지 해요.
    한글로도 이런 칼럼 써주세요.
    받아줄 신문사가 있을지 모르지만.

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