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Pathetic self-portrait of Korean mass media

Publication Date : 23-01-2014


“Professional ethics (in journalism) have fallen to the bottom … To be called a professional, one needs to be equipped with a license, armed with professional knowledge and bound by professional ethics. Today’s reportorial jobs seem to be free of these requirements. Opinion surveys find few respondents believing that reporters are ethically respectable. The thing is that journalism and journalists remain low both in public esteem and trust.”

This quotation must sound like the usual complaint from a staff member of a political party secretariat or an economic organisation that has been routinely troubled by media reports critical of its business plans and practices. But it is actually part of a presentation made by a reporter in a colloquium the Kwanhun Club arranged last year as part of its project to self-assess the Korean media world. Here are more quotes from “The Quality of Korean Journalism,” published by the association at the end of last year:

“We can criticise Chosun, JoongAng, Dong-A, Hankyung (The Korea Economic Daily) if they did anything wrong. But, at present, criticisms are made entirely through confrontational logic. It is ‘we’ against ‘them.’ In the past, there used to be a pipeline of communication even between political adversaries. Now, there is no such thing anymore.”

“What controls the bodies and minds of Korean reporters is not elitism or anything, but group egotism. They produce news or investigative articles that they believe are in the interest of their company and attack any group that stands against the interests of their company. The ‘silent cartel’ among media outlets has long ago been dismantled.”

“Reporters like to criticise others but they hate to be criticised.”

The Kwanhun Club, a fraternity of senior journalists born in 1957, published “The Quality of Korean Journalism” 13 years after it produced “The Whereabouts of Korean Journalism.” The new publication was aimed at helping search for “concrete and practical ways to recover lost public trust and thereby contribute to the advancement of the media community,” according to 2013 Club Secretary Oh Tae-gyu. As a member since 1982, a copy was mailed to me last week.

The 367-page book is made up of five chapters written by journalism professors with media experience and a network editor. In addition to their own research results, they relied heavily on roundtable discussions with active journalists from national newspapers, broadcasting networks and a news agency. Twenty-four reporters and editors taking part in five sessions spoke about their profession “in all frankness.”

Park Jae-young from Korea University wrote about the quality of news reports, Lee Jae-kyung from Ewha University on the reporter recruitment and training system in Korea, Kim Se-eun from Kangwon University on media criticism, Shim Suk-tae from SBS on the legal system applied to the media and Nam Shi-wook, former managing editor of the Dong-A Ilbo, delved into the relations between journalists and management (owners).

The year-long research and publication project on the quality of Korean journalism was monumental work by the Kwanhun Club, which can claim a uniquely respectable position in Korean society because of its political neutrality, professional integrity and financial independence. Its executive board, represented by the secretary, rotates annually.

The club explained it was compelled to take up the self-assessment project as a sense of crisis was deepening in Korea’s media world. Journalists have felt adversity brewing in three areas: the growing threats to the paper and broadcasting media from the Internet and social networking services; the shift in their organisations from “management for reporting” to “reporting for management”; and pressure to compromise editorial integrity in pursuit of company interests and political favoritism. Due to these external and internal shortcomings, client trust has weakened.

“Newspaper subscriptions have dwindled to less than half of what it was 10 years ago. Television viewing has also been declining. Newspapers and broadcasting networks have been trapped into showing political inclinations since democratisation to distort all issues through ideological bias, thus amplifying social conflicts,” observes professor Lee Jae-kyung. He went so far as to attribute the ailing democracy in Korea to the sickness of the media.

To survive in the increasingly grim media environment, newspapers are cautiously launching paid online services to earn revenues directly from selling news instead of via advertisements. Yet, professor Park Jae-young is skeptical about how much success newspapers will have without dramatic improvements to the quality of their merchandise - news stories. In the United States, wars are raging among 450 newspapers that have started paid online services, while the remaining 900 are bracing for a shift.

Park believes that newspapers here are also at war. “But this new war is not with other newspapers; it is a war of reporters on themselves. The goal is to increase the perfection of your article. You are to overcome not the competing newspapers but yourself. The quality of the story is what matters … The paid online service is a great chance for reporters to upgrade their product and prove their capabilities.”

In order to set certain standards of “quality,” the author compared stories in the Chosun Ilbo and the New York Times. Researchers checked the two papers’ articles on the president - the number of sentences, the number of named and unnamed sources, and the number of direct quotations. The Chosun’s stories had an average of 9.87 sentences, the NYT had 41; the average number of sources was 2.1 in the Chosun, 7.5 in the NYT; the Chosun had 3.9 direct quotes on average, the NYT had 12.8. A long NYT article had 51 direct quotes while the Chosun’s most elaborately written story had 12 quotes.

A research report on the quality of broadcast news, made by seven reporters and two professors last year, listed 25 problems in network news through questionnaires with 292 members of the Association of Broadcast Journalists. It was no surprise that “open and covert siding with specific political forces” was on the top of the list, which also included lack of specialised knowledge and ignorance of human rights in favor of sensationalism and ratings.

Viewed from any direction, the picture is bleak. That the journalists’ group at least made an effort to identify problems sends us a flicker of hope.

Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. - Ed.


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