[VIEWPOINT]Ethical education neededI received a phone call from an acquaintance of mine yesterday. The main point was that the MBC PD Notebook incident was not just an ethical problem but a clear violation of law. The issue should not be glossed over as an ethical problem but should be strictly dealt with by the law. What is law? It is the common sense that prevails in our daily life. Law was made to enforce the most basic ethics by imposing punishments to ensure people would live ethically. It seems that our society now thinks that the behavior of the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation should not be left solely to the world of ethics.
That does not mean that the problem of ethics can be put aside. The problem is too big and serious. Such behavior as hiding the true intention of its reporting team, making threats in the process of gathering information, appeasement, leading questions, the use of hidden cameras, the proposal to give help (in the interviewees’ careers in the United States) in return for cooperation in filming, the rumor that they reported to Dr. Gerald P. Schatten the content of the report and all other actions are serious violations of media ethics that should be clarified. These are all activities forbidden by laws governing media ethics in all countries.
No matter how noble the intention of any reporting may be, it is a generally accepted norm that reporting that includes illegal or unfair methods is not justified. Therefore, even if the contents are not reported publicly, the action of collecting information through such methods is in itself illegal and the persons involved should have to face punishment or pay compensation for the damage they caused. In other words, if the threatening questions, hidden camera and broadcasting of an interview without the consent of the person interviewed, as was claimed by a researcher, turn out to be true, they are all illegal actions. On top of that, broadcasting information that was gathered through illegal means or processes is itself in violation of the law.
In the United States, a television network was ordered to pay punitive damages for fraud and violation of domicile after investigating under cover (the Food Lion case), and in Germany, a person who got a job as a freelance writer for a newspaper but later wrote a book that criticized the newspaper company was judged guilty for deceiving others for reporting activities (the Bilt case). In Japan, a reporter who seduced a female secretary to get information (the diplomatic secret leak case) was found guilty of engaging in illegal reporting activity in view of the spirit of law and order in general.
MBC singularly apologized on air a few hours after YTN reported its activities. That was the corporation’s seventh apology this year. I think this is, perhaps, a record number of apologies to be given by a broadcaster in one year, of all broadcasting companies throughout the world. MBC has been sued thirty times in the past two years. This is also a record number of litigation cases filed by a media company during the same period of time. Despite all these wrongdoings, however, MBC enjoys a great privilege under media law. The regulation that restricts ownership by a media company to 30 percent of the market does not apply to MBC. Under the law, Seoul MBC is allowed to own 19 regional broadcasting companies in Korea. This can only be a retrogression that goes against the diversification of public opinion. Even in a free country like the United States, there is a limit to how many broadcasting companies one corporation can own.
The only special duty MBC has in return for this privilege is that it is “watched” by the Media Culture Promotion Association. There is a serious imbalance between the privileges and duties of the broadcaster. In its public apology, MBC called itself a public broadcasting company. If it can be defined as a “public broadcasting company” through a clause in the Media Culture Promotion Association Act, seven apologies in one year means it is not taking this status seriously. If there are no corresponding duties to any right, side effects will follow. A professor of mass communications has said that Korean public broadcasters are not public but empty broadcasters.
In connection with the recent MBC incident, there is a precedent in a Japanese court ruling (Osaka, 2002) that implies a lesson. When a weekly magazine continuously collected information illegally, the court held the reporters concerned and the company responsible, and also held the CEO of the company separately responsible for not establishing an ethical system to prevent such illegal acts. It may be impossible for a broadcasting station to prevent illegal information collection and reporting activities of its producers and reporters, but a corresponding ethical education should follow such actions. The New York Times has the most talented reporters in the world, but the paper still makes all reporters take mandatory ethical-legal education at least once a year.
* The writer is a professor of media ethics and law at Hallym University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Ok-jo
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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