[OUTLOOK]Participation, but not by mediaThe renowned communications scholar and international media critic John Merrill has theorized a three-stage development of a government’s attempts to control the media. A government will first attack the press, then only allow selected information to be printed and finally go into the media industry by itself. Recently, the Korean government announced that it would publish an online government newspaper contributed to by eleven government agencies. The government is moving into the third and final stage in John Merrill’s theory.
Korean society is undergoing quite a war between the government and major media. We might welcome the noise, which could be labor pains in the process of breaking away from the unusually cozy relationship between the government and the media in the past.
In fact, we can hardly find an active snowy-haired journalist. Very few remained in the field for a lifetime, and an especially large number pursued political careers. That suggests that Korean journalism has been unusually power-oriented and journalists themselves did not respect their professional careers.
In this state of confrontation with the government, the media need to look back on themselves instead of fighting against the government. The changed media market conditions and internal and external criticism are already improving the journalistic environment. What makes us uncomfortable is the exceedingly aggressive media policy of the “participatory government.”
The office of the president launched a newsletter, “The Blue House Briefing,” in March; it said the purpose was to “satisfy the citizens’ right to know and to achieve transparent state administration.” The newsletter includes a wide spectrum of topics, from up-to-date news about the president and the Blue House to major policy issues such as inter-Korean relations. One of the interesting topics is the government’s reaction to supposedly incorrect media reports. From March to May, the newsletter rebutted some media coverage of the government about every other day, but now the frequency has increased to nearly every day. In June and July, only two issues, those of June 3 and July 1, did not contain criticism of the media for distortion. In August, the Blue House Briefing did not skip one day in attacking the media.
Articles displayed on the home page of the Blue House Web site for the last three days were all rebuttals of commentaries or articles by media outlets.
According to the Blue House Briefing’s standards, the priority of the participatory government’s governance lies in its relations with the media, especially in responding to the reports they find uncomfortable. At this stage, the government cannot shed the image that it is putting all its efforts into checking and controlling the media instead of accepting critical media coverage.
It is time to consider seriously where this all is headed. Even if the government started the fight against the media for legitimate reasons, we cannot afford this unconstructive battle. As much as the cozy government-media relationship had been a problem in the past, this war of attrition is equally undesirable, because the government is neglecting pending problems that need to be addressed.
The Roh Moo-hyun administration hoped to create healthy tension with the media, but despite its reasonable intention and purpose, increasingly harsh confrontation has tainted the spirit. The government has declared that it would respond to opinion pieces as well, including editorials, columns and commentaries. We worry that the government might end up controlling opinion itself, which is not why it started to comment on the media in the first place.
Instead of these seemingly emotional responses, the government needs to focus on proposing policy and agendas and persuade the citizens to accept them. From this perspective, the open briefing system was a step toward strategic communications, which implemented a systematic framework to fulfill the unique task of national public relations. Thanks to the open briefing system, the media has scaled down its theoretical attacks on the government. Of course, the system went through some bumps because the system was hurriedly created and implemented with a workforce in which over 70 percent have no experience in public relations. Public relations officers in the provinces say they see no differences under the new system. The government must find out the reason that makes them think that way.
At any rate, a government is evaluated through its policies. Similarly, a news company can only survive in the market with quality news. As a reference, John Merrill said that a government’s attacks on the media for the purpose of controlling them is a losing battle.
* The writer is a professor of public relations at Sookmyung Women’s University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Jo Jung-yul