[VIEWPOINT]Model ethical media managers

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[VIEWPOINT]Model ethical media managers

Two prominent media figures who died last year deserve to be remembered for their accomplishments.

One was the owner and chairman of the Washington Post, Katharine Graham, and the other was the former chairman of the Korean daily Hankyoreh, Song Kun-ho.

Mrs. Graham became a model of excellence in running a media company, and Mr. Song showed the way to be an outstanding journalist. Time magazine, which competes with the Washington Post group magazine Newsweek, carried an appreciation of Mrs. Graham, calling her a media owner of managerial, journalistic and human substance. Our media paid tribute to Mr. Song's life of integrity as a journalist.

We also remember the national preoccupation with media reform last year. There was a clash between freedom of the press and the fairness in tax collections.

That confrontation was fierce enough, unfortunately, to shake the very foundations of fair reporting in journalism.

But from the viewpoint of average citizens, who were not direct stakeholders in the issue, the conflict may have contributed to the advancement of both objectives - a fairer tax collection regime and more responsible journalism.

With that confrontation more or less behind us, the new year dawned. But now the media are confronted with another corrosive issue, centering on allegations that scores of journalists succumbed to lobbying by Yoon Tae-shik, the majority shareholder of Pass 21, who is not only suspected of murdering his wife but is alleged to have improperly lobbied politicians and high-ranking government officials.

The charge against the journalists is that they received shares of the company free or at steep discounts in return for slanting their reporting on the company. If those charges are true, there is a strong possibility that ordinary investors suffered damage from relying on the distorted information written by the involved journalists.

The incident will be remembered as a perfect illustration of a media failure to act in the public interest. What the public wants from media reform is for media professionals to root out such abuses.

The amended ethics code adopted by media organizations in 1996 lays out specific guidelines on journalists' conduct in reporting on financial topics. Journalists are specifically prohibited from reporting on securities that they or their relatives own.

The code also bars journalists from trading, directly or indirectly, securities that they have reported on.

Journalists themselves have adopted this code of conduct. If the allegations about these journalists involved in the Pass 21 matter are correct, the reporters involved have badly tarnished their reputation for living up to their standards of personal and professional responsibility.

Even worse, there are allegations that media owners may have been involved.

According to a survey I conducted, the public has a low image of journalists, who are seen as being generously rewarded persons who command little respect and contribute little to society. Journalists will not be able to shed this reputation unless they can demonstrate that they are independent of their sources and have the will to resist blandishments.

So we look back on the accomplishments of Mrs. Graham and Mr. Song. Management must set the ethical tone for the journalists who work at newspapers, magazines and broadcasting stations. It is management's job to set an example for their reporters so that they would feel compelled to reject bribes and other inducements. Management must ensure that ethical codes are followed.

According to a study by a Hallym University professor, Kim Ok-jo, ethical standards in the Korean media fall short of Western ethics; codes here are often too vague and lenient.

Journalists must learn that a strong ethical code is their best defense against prosecutorial abuse that threatens freedom of the press. If the media are allowed to continue their sloppy ethical culture, the loss will be the public's.

The public's outcry for media reform will not abate, and respect for journalists will be that much less.


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The writer is a professor of mass communications at Sogang University.

by Kim Hak-soo

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