Media ethics judged, found wanting
Choi Jin-yong, Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation’s director in charge of its current affairs programming, said he was only able to view tapes of his team’s interviews with Korean researchers at the University of Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon. That was just hours before the YTN TV network disclosed how MBC’s PD Notebook team allegedly coerced the researchers during the interviews. After seeing his team’s footage, Mr. Choi admitted that he was very shocked.
While the nation has taken issue with MBC’s investigative reporting methods, the director in charge apparently was blind to what had gone wrong, trusting his producers to get things right. Media experts said such an incident would be impossible in a normally functioning journalistic regime and was a sorry reflection on Korean television producers’ practice of journalism. They said the recent turmoil triggered by PD Notebook’s approach to investigative reporting on Hwang Woo-suk’s embryonic stem cell research revealed some structural problems inherent in the practice of what they called “PD journalism”.
The term is familiar only to Koreans, because producers and journalists have distinct roles in other countries. After KBS began to air “60 Minutes,” the TV network’s equivalent of an American investigative journalism program, in 1983, current affairs and investigative reporting programs made by producers at TV networks here have also begun to feature political, human rights, welfare and other sensitive topics.
About 10 current affairs investigative reporting programs are being aired by the nation’s three TV networks - KBS, MBC and SBS.
Similar programs are common in other countries, especially in the United States. CBS’s “60 Minutes” and “48 Hours” and ABC’s “Nightline” are perhaps the models for much of Korea’s output of similar programs.
But there is an important difference as well. Producers only oversee the production of such programs in most other countries, while journalists do the investigations that are the bases for the programs’ content. The roles of producers and journalists are clearly separated in other countries, while producers play both those roles in “PD journalism” in Korea - they go out in the field, investigate, edit the content and write the scripts for the final program.
PD journalism was a byproduct of the authoritarian Korean regimes, media experts said. Academics in Korea do not reject the notion that PD journalism contributed greatly in promoting democracy here, where media have long been censored.
The distinctive form of PD journalism has both some good and bad points, media experts said. “PD journalism was referred to as a window to the truth and an excessive expression of subjective opinions at the same time,” said Yoon Ho-jin, a senior researcher with the Korea Broadcasting Institute.
“Current affairs programs made by producers have played the role of critics of the government, and that role was valuable in some ways,” said Kim Dong-yule, a senior researcher with the Korea Development Institute. “But the times have changed now, and producers must refrain from investigating with a conclusion already in mind.”
“PD journalism has contributed to the maturing of our society with in-depth reporting,” a senior executive at MBC said. “But, there have been many cases in which such programs were shaky in gate-keeping and verification.”
Another senior official with MBC said the broadcaster is suffering from the consequences of “overemphasizing independence.”
“Since the mid-1990s, our top priority has been achieving editorial freedom, but we now see some ill effects from that as well,” he said. “Right now, the decision-making power in the editorial and reporting fields has been too often delegated to low-level workers.”
Media experts also contended that current affairs programs often fail to keep any sense of balance. They said broadcast programs on the presidential impeachment last year were particularly biased. While the impeachment protesters’ candlelight rallies were each aired 16 times on average, a street rally to support the impeachment appeared on viewers’ television screens only once.
“No matter how we try to loosen the standards for judging such practices, the programs still were unbalanced,” the Korean Society for Journalism and Communication Studies charged. The producers, however, contended that their editing was deliberate and tried to reflect what the people thought at the time.
In August 2004, the Seoul Broadcasting System surveyed 111 producers of current affairs programs at KBS, MBC and SBS. The producers largely agreed that they had already decided on the conclusions of a program before beginning their work, and interviews and investigations were carried out to support the already-drawn conclusions.
They also admitted that they were concerned about secretly recorded interviews and distorted quotes. According to the poll, about 60 percent of the producers said a sense of balance was the most important qualification for current affairs programs’ producers.
Referring to the poll results, media experts said the recent MBC reporting on Dr. Hwang demonstrated a combination of problems pointed out in the survey.
Several argued that PD journalism in Korea has failed to respect the basic journalistic principles of fact-checking and verification.
“Journalists at news departments are controlled through verification, but producers carry out their own independent investigations,” said Kang Hyung-cheol, a journalism professor at Sookmyoung Women’s University. “Therefore, their reporting can reflect the producers’ subjective opinions.”
Producers at the broadcasting companies admit to such a problem. “Until the mid-1990s, obtaining independence was the priority among us,” a senior executive of MBC said. “But we are also seeing some ill effects today.”
Producers also said they had no choice but to push for airing the programs because there is nothing else to replace an already-scheduled program. “We have no option, so we make a program once we decide on a subject,” a producer with SBS said. “If the program lacks substance, we just fill it with interviews and re-enactments.”
Media experts also worry that such current affairs programs often exaggerate facts to support their conclusions. “PD journalism features drama, novelty and injustice,” said Yoon Young-chul, a professor of media studies at Yonsei University. “Such programs, therefore, often employ exaggerations.”
MBC’s reporting practices should be corrected by repairing the flaws in the system, media experts said. “We should not let the ‘PD Notebook’ crisis end without a clear resolution,” said Lee Jae-kyoung, a media studies professor at Ewha Womans University. “Even if it means forming an outside investigating committee, we should set up a system to prevent such bad practices.”
Professor Kang at Sookmyoung Women’s University said producers, when they go out to the fields for investigations, should be educated as journalists to respect ethics and the basic principles of reporting. “We should also work on integrating the work system in which journalists and producers work together,” he concluded.
by Special Reporting Team