[Viewpoint]Serving the people’s right to know

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[Viewpoint]Serving the people’s right to know

The administration’s system for public information is expected to change. The Government Information Agency is drawing up new procedures based on its study of press rooms in other countries. In 2003, the administration introduced an open-door briefing system, which allowed journalists from any media outlet to attend briefings. After four years, the government’s system for media coverage of the government is to be changed again.
A public information system must be changed based on consensus among the people. The government’s public information activities and coverage by the media are two sides of the same coin. Both work to provide reasonable information and to serve the people’s right to know. Thus, reforms in the system should not be done unilaterally. The government and the media must find common ground and implement reforms in ways that enable the people to express their preferences.
To seek changes not long after the current system has been introduced proves that the recent reform was too idealistic or that the administration failed to create consensus among everyone concerned. To give the impression that journalists have serious problems with their attitude and work ethics is not a proper resolution to problems, and it is hard to gain social consensus with that approach. If this persists, the next administration might change the system again. It’s a jump of logic for the government to compare our own system with the 27 countries they have because 23 of them have a parliamentary government. In such a system, the parliament makes policies and the administration implements them. Naturally, press rooms are located in the cabinet.
In contrast, we have a presidential system, where the administration is very powerful in making policy. In our country, ordinary citizens have little access to information on policies. Thus, it is more beneficial than harmful if journalists, watchdogs on behalf of the people, work in designated areas in the halls of government. Of course, the cost of providing such rooms must be reasonable.
The focus must be on effective management of briefing rooms and the communication rooms where journalists transmit their articles to their newsrooms. The system of open-door press rooms was aimed at giving journalists equal opportunity to cover the government. However, the system did not consider differences in capacities and contributions of different media outlets. To illustrate, the briefing room at the White House has a system of assigned seats. Journalists are assigned seats according to their companies’ influence or audience size. Journalists from the major dailies or broadcasters have seats in the front row and thus have better chances to ask questions. We do hope that now the government will change the system in a way that allows all reporters from all media outlets to use pressrooms freely. Reporters now spend a lot of time in communication rooms doing telephone interviews, writing articles and transmitting stories. The briefing rooms are not being used efficiently. It will be more efficient to designate one space to serve all purposes than to reduce the size of communication rooms. It would be better to combine the pressrooms of some small government agencies and commissions.
If an open press room system is introduced, there is a possibility the malpractices of press rooms of the past could happen again. Inappropriate practices were the result of the exclusionary way of managing the press corps. In a new system, the press corps must allow in reporters of all media outlets and must be run more democratically. There is criticism that some reporters “hang out” in the press room for a long time and direct how certain articles should be written. Some claim that different media outlets run or broadcast more or less the same articles because they agree beforehand what content on certain subjects to report. But that’s not the result of a collective consensus. That’s because reporters view similar news items as important, or if they cannot cover exclusive news items, they at least try not to miss out on common news items. But news coverage can be diversified through more diverse and abundant information. To block reporters from working in the same space is not the right resolution to the issue.
Some rules are needed when journalists interview civil servants. In order to institutionalize a system in which reporters cover news through public information offices, the quality and quantity of content to cover must be guaranteed. If public information offices work effectively in responding to the needs of reporters and policy makers, reporters have no reason to oppose the idea. But if that is not guaranteed, reporters have no choice but to try to contact sources directly. Reporters will be afraid to lose in competition. Government bodies can publicize data and information on their policies on the Internet.
Changing the government’s public information system is not and should not be about the size of briefing rooms or communication rooms. Proper relations between the government and the media must be defined first. Their functions are independent of each other but they are also interdependent. The new public information system must embrace the diverse demands of the media and society.

*The writer is a professor at the School of Communication at Kookmin University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Son Young-jun

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