[Outlook]Back to basics for journalists

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[Outlook]Back to basics for journalists

The conventional newspaper industry is being battered by Internet portals these days. Increasingly, readers are consuming news and advertisements more through Internet portals than in dailies.

Newspapers deliver news to readers and receive subscription fees in return, publish information about goods and services and get fees for advertisements from the companies. But this very foundation of newspaper life is now crumbling, in Korea and around the world.

How should newspapers respond to this new situation? To find an answer to this question, renowned American journalists gathered at Harvard University in 1997 and formed the Committee of Concerned Journalists.

Personally I like the committee’s name because it is simple and direct, rather than using grandiose terms like “reform of the press.”

The committee debated long and hard before reaching a plain and obvious conclusion. They decided that the best way to tackle the problem was for journalism to go back to basic principles.

Believing that practicing journalism faithful to basic tenets can rescue the newspaper industry, the committee launched the Project for Excellence in Journalism, together with the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

The PEJ devised a Reporting Index in a bid to discern good journalism from bad. There are three key guidelines.

First, an article must contain four or more clear sources of information. A reporter must get information from at least four different sources and clearly identify who they are.

The second is a variety of perspectives. An article must present diverse viewpoints, and no viewpoint must exceed two-thirds of the entire piece.

Third, four or more people involved in the issue that the article is about must be interviewed. The intention behind this guideline is to encourage reporters to meet many people who have different or contradictory interests and reflect their opinions.

Every year the PEJ surveys how closely U.S. newspapers adhere to these guidelines. The results vary from year to year but in major newspapers, two-thirds of all articles used four or more identified resources. More than 80 percent of articles captured various perspectives and more than 70 percent included four or more people who were concerned with the issues.

How about Korean newspapers? They score roughly half the points that major U.S. dailies get.

Korea’s media outlets perform well in general in ordinary times over many issues. However, where issues that they are directly involved in are concerned, their attitudes change suddenly and drastically.

A good example is recent reporting about a bill to allow newspapers to own major broadcasters. Many agree that newspapers will inevitably own major broadcasters sooner or later since it is a global trend in the industry. Ever-developing Internet technology is tearing down boundaries that used to distinctively divide different forms of mass media.

In Korea, a major player in the newspaper industry already owns a broadcasting company. Now is the time for all parties concerned to work together in order to find concrete and detailed ways to minimize possible side effects from the measure allowing newspapers to enter the broadcasting industry.

Meanwhile, different media outlets are taking different approaches and viewpoints on the issue. Broadcasting companies underscore that if newspapers are allowed to own broadcasters, conglomerates and conservative newspapers will dominate the space for public debates. On the other hand, newspapers that are interested in running TV stations maintain that the measure will help restore the economy and deliver the general public’s opinions more faithfully.

The problem is, looking at the existing content of their reports, neither broadcasters nor newspapers adequately meet any of PEJ’s guidelines to include four or more sources, various perspectives and different opinions.

Media outlets interpret the situation in ways that suit them best and quote sources that reinforce their view. There certainly is an alternative but they avoid it at all costs.

The PEJ is believed to have saved journalism in the United States. So can’t it be applied to Korean media?

*The writer is a professor at Korea University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Min-hwan
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