[Outllook]Faking the newsIt was a grave mistake to run a photo of a journalist sitting in a beef restaurant just because customers there refused to have their picture taken. The media neglected its obligation to deliver the truth.
Some 30 years ago when I was a rookie reporter, I was involved in a similar incident. At the time, apartments had started to become popular in Korea and the media was interested in the apartment lifestyle. Back then, it felt strange to think that kids would be opening the door to their families’ apartments on their own and going in to empty homes. Rumors swirled that kids living in apartments had keys hanging around their necks. The newspaper I worked for decided to run a photo of one of these kids. We looked around an apartment complex in Yeouido, but we couldn’t find any. Our boss was pushing us to get a photo but we just couldn’t find such a kid. In the end, I hung a key around my nephew’s neck and got him to play in a playground. The JoongAng Ilbo’s photo of a reporter sitting in a beef restaurant is the same mistake that his seniors, like me, made in the past.
There is another story that has become legend in the Korean correspondents’ community in Washington. When former President Chun Doo Hwan was in office, two public broadcasters were competing to show their loyalty to the president. Chun was going on a tour of Southeast Asia and Africa to establish closer ties. The head offices in Seoul pushed their Washington correspondents to do interviews with people praising the Korean president’s diplomacy. But Americans were not interested in the president’s diplomacy; they had an extremely bad impression of Chun because of the Gwangju massacre. It was impossible to find someone who would give a good interview. So, a Korean correspondent asked a guard at the National Press Building in Washington to do the interview. The guard was advanced in years and looked like a serious and decent person. In the subtitles, he was introduced as a doctor at a research institute in Washington.
In 1960, in the later period of the Liberal Party’s rule, corrupt election results on March 15 sparked protests in Masan, South Gyeongsang. The people then had tremendous trust in newspapers because they took a leading role in protests against the dictatorship. In Masan, even policemen kept a low profile but when a jeep waving a newspaper’s flag entered the city, citizens applauded and welcomed the journalists.
But things were quiet in Jinju, another South Gyeongsang city. A reporter called the chief of the Jinju office and said, “Is Jinju going to stay quiet? I will go to the city tomorrow with a photographer to mobilize people.” After that, an article saying that a demonstration was sparked in Jinju ran in the newspaper. This is according to the testimony of a journalist who is over 80 years old now.
It is wrong to set up a story, whether it is to praise a dictatorship or to protest against it.
The media in Korea are facing a crisis. Some media outlets maintain that American beef is safe and violent protests shouldn’t be tolerated while others argue that American beef is not safe and protests are legitimate although they may have become violent. It is natural that the media has become distrusted by the people.
The truth isn’t discovered through philosophical debate of a topic, but by the professionalism of journalists. As citizen or Internet journalism becomes more and more widespread, the only way for professional journalists to survive is to have a strict set of ethics. Journalists must be driven by a sense of duty to deliver nothing but the truth. This can be achieved only through a lifetime’s education, training, knowledge and experience. Journalists with common sense and ethics can reveal the truth, or something close to it.
A journalist must find out whether it has been scientifically verified that the chance of contracting the human equivalent of mad cow disease is one in several hundred million. A reporter also must ask himself whether he or she is only giving out the truth when reporting on the safety of American beef.
Different people have different opinions. Accepting this fact is a prerequisite for being open-minded, a state of mind that is a cornerstone of a democratic society. Even if you believe American beef is safe, you should accept that other people feel it is unsafe. This sense of equality came up short in the coverage of the beef dispute.
Another important journalistic quality is courage. Journalists must be courageous enough to tell the truth, even when they are likely to face disadvantages and hardships in doing so. Even if a journalist is equipped with all these professional qualities, he can’t mature in the profession if he doesn’t love humankind.
I hope that our media will be reborn to revive our ailing democracy and unite our divided society.
*The writer is the vice publisher and chief editor of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Moon Chang-keuk