Self-examination of 2004 reportsThe editors of the JoongAng Ilbo, the vernacular news organization and parent of the English-language JoongAng Daily, undertake a yearly journalistic self-examination. In doing so, the editors tacitly acknowledge that newspapering can aptly described as “the art of the possible,” with journalists attempting to do their best at taking the first cut at recording history. Here are some examples of how difficult the process can be and why journalists are forever recommitting themselves to doing a better job. The editors of the English edition are responsible for their own misjudgments, but the examples cited in the columns below were identified by the JoongAng Ilbo as its own.
The struggle to get it right the first time
On Nov. 12, the JoongAng Ilbo published an exclusive story on John Bolton, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. The article said that the International Atomic Energy Agency would refer an unauthorized nuclear material experiment conducted by South Korean scientists to the U.N. Security Council. The newspaper trusted Mr. Bolton’s words because he heads the U.S. government’s policy on nuclear non-proliferation. In the story, the JoongAng Ilbo wrote that Mr. Bolton had informed the Japanese government of this decision. Yet the IAEA board of governors, who met in Vienna on Nov. 25, did not refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council.
Mr. Bolton said what he said. The South Korean Foreign Ministry verified this, and Japanese media also covered this story. At the time, not only the United States but also European countries claimed that it was inevitable that the issue would be referred to the U.N. Security Council. However, the situation changed completely.
Iran, suspected of developing nuclear weapons, announced that it would give up its nuclear program. It was no longer necessary to refer Iran’s problem to the U.N. Security Council. The South Korean experiment paled in comparison to Iran’s work. The IAEA apparently decided South Korea had cooperated actively enough not to refer the matter to the council. Early news can many times turn out to be different than what comes to pass because it is impossible to predict the future.
The story on Viktor Yushchenko’s face is another example. A report stated that the then-presidential candidate of the Ukraine was suffering from a viral condition. An international news agency reported it on Nov. 27. However, lab tests from an Austrian hospital last month showed the skin condition was caused by dioxin.
The story on the return of the remains of Megumi Yokota, a Japanese middle school girl who was abducted by North Koreans 27 years ago, also turned out to be different that the initial news reports. DNA tests on the remains received from North Korea did not match that of Ms. Yokota.
The JoongAng Ilbo story described the remains handed over by the North Koreans as “allegedly those of Ms. Megumi” but our headline stated otherwise. Readers would have gotten the wrong impression after reading the headline. Headlines tend to be short, but the JoongAng Ilbo’s editors overstated the story.
The JoongAng Ilbo’s international news desk many times relies on foreign news sources. The paper has the highest number of correspondents working abroad among Korean newspapers, but it is still not enough to cover the entire world. The editors try to select news sources critically but many times it is difficult to ensure accuracy. The paper delivers the information the editors believe comes from credible sources. But it doesn’t always work out. A story on Feb. 14 that Saddam Hussein abused drugs was based on incorrect information from Bild, the German daily.
More skepticism of government is needed
Reporters sometimes rely too heavily on government statements and officials.
Here is an example from the JoongAng Ilbo’s front page report on June 22. “Speculation on weekend talks between Kim Jong-il and Putin” was the headline. The report quoted a government official as saying, “Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s national defense chairman, is likely to have summit talks with Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok in the Russian Far East on the weekend.” A government official said, “We cannot confirm yet if the talks have been decided on.”
But considering the situation in which the six-way talks on the North Korea nuclear issue were making steady progress at the time, the JoongAng Ilbo editors judged that the North had shown a positive attitude toward them. Accordingly, they saw a high possibility that summit talks would be an extension of the six-way talks. But the summit never happened. In hindsight, it was wrong to publish speculation on the talks on the most important page of the newspaper. It placed too much confidence in what the government official said.
Prejudice and ignorance about North Korea at times causes misguided reports. The front-page headline on Sept. 13 was “Two blasts near Huchang train station in Kim Hyung-jik county, Yangang province, North Korea could be explosions of an arsenal or a train.” This headline offered two possible causes for the explosion without any definite, factual information.
When a domestic news agency released its first report on the explosions and the chairman of the standing committee of the National Security Council and Unification Minister Chung Dong-young announced in a press conference, “I know there’s something abnormal in North Korea,” the JoongAng Ilbo ran the article with additional reports.
Too much confidence was placed in Mr. Chung. The remainder of the report was based on speculation and on “rumors of abnormal symptoms.” The JoongAng Ilbo’s poor news judgment was caused by dependence on the government and on personal prejudice.
The next day, North Korea disclosed through Foreign Affairs Minister Paek Nam-soon that “explosives were detonated in Samsu county for the construction of a hydroelectric power plant, ” not in Kim Hyung-jik County. Foreign diplomats in Pyeongyang confirmed the fact after visiting the site of the explosions.
The report was factually wrong on the source and location of the explosions. The closed state of North Korean society always makes reporting difficult. Even so, more care should have been taken in gathering the news materials without depending on the government announcement alone. Readers deserve an apology for being presented with unconfirmed reports.
The way the six-way talks over the North Korea nuclear issue have been reported is problematic, too. The talks ― active in the first half of the year ― were not held for a fourth round in the second half. The problem was whether the newspaper should keep reminding readers of the situation following the breakdown in the talks.
Looking back, the JoongAng Ilbo editors feel they failed readers because too little attention was paid to the situation. Their thinking was that reports on talks without any progress were not news and a waste of space.
Some reports in the JoongAng Ilbo were exaggerated. An article headlined “A submarine that infiltrated the East Sea, blocked by a depth charge” was published on page one on Oct. 14. The content and title of the article concluded that a North Korean submarine had infiltrated.
But more exactly, there was only an “intelligence report” about the infiltration of an object that was presumed to be a submarine. Whether a submarine actually infiltrated has not been confirmed.
Regarding Korea’s conflict with China over the history of the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo, the JoongAng Ilbo on Aug. 24 printed the headline: “South Korea and China launch negotiations on the conflict over the history of Goguryeo.”
The article said, “The Chairman of the Standing Committee of National Security Council Chung Dong-young and Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister Tang Jiaxuan prepared a solution at the meeting.” But there was no such meeting.
There was also a mistake in a commentary about the negotiations on defense cost sharing for U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. The article said, “The United States recently dropped its initial request to add the cost of modernizing command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) systems to defense cost sharing items.” It was found that the United States requested sharing the costs in a second round of negotiations between high-ranking officials in Seoul on Dec. 8 and 9.
Problems also occurred with issues involving confidentiality and the public’s right to know.
There was a sensitive article that caused conflict over what the state regarded as secrets and the mission of the press to satisfy the people’s right to know.
It was “The government’s Chungmoo Plan to prepare for an emergency in North Korea” that made page one headlines on Dec. 5. A day earlier, Grand National Party lawmaker Chung Moon-hun asked a question openly in the Unification, Foreign Affairs and Trade Committee at the National Assembly, and the Ministry of Unification asked the media to keep the answer off the record even though Unification Minister Chung Dong-young answered the question.
But the JoongAng Ilbo reported it anyway. It was judged that the statements made at an open National Assembly hearing should be covered even when the government sought to hide the information and that the specific contents of the Chungmoo Plan were in the press release distributed in advance by Representative Chung.
The Ministry of Unification later said it would not recognize JoongAng reporters for two months. The paper takes the view that the government tried to hold the press responsible for the mistake that arose from its own inadequate handling of the matter. But we learned a lesson that we should be more considerate when reporting sensitive government information.
Guesswork on cyanide and dumplings
The JoongAng Ilbo published an article on Sept. 18 with the headline: “Cyanide shipment to North blocked.” Quoting a National Assembly lawmaker, the paper reported that the United States had stopped a shipment to North Korea of sodium cyanide, a chemical used in pesticide production but can also be used to produce deadly sarin gas. But sodium cyanide can’t be used to make sarin gas. Instead, it can be a component of another kind of a deadly chemical weapon, tabun.
While it was necessary to verify the scientific information with other experts, the JoongAng Ilbo simply quoted the legislator’s claim, failing to report accurately about the nature of the sensitive chemical.
In the article published on June 7 with the title of “Unsanitary food scam alleged,” the JoongAng Ilbo reported that five people were accused of violating the Food Sanitation Act by supplying unsanitary pickled radishes to dumpling and bread manufacturers nationwide. “According to police, since 1999 the suspects had been collecting pickled radishes from Chinese factories that were meant for disposal,” the article said.
The report was based on briefings by the police and the Korea Food and Drug Administration, and the JoongAng Ilbo inaccurately reported that the dumplings were made in part out of garbage.
The story had a profound effect on dumpling sales. As the media continued reporting about the dumplings made from garbage, the owner of a dumpling company committed suicide, saying he felt disgraced.
While the ingredients were certainly not sanitary, they were not garbage. Too much trust was placed in the official briefings without verifying what was actually inside the dumplings.