Ethics Be Damned: South Korean Journalism Fails

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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)

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Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among other publications.