[Viewpoint] Reporting without naming names

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[Viewpoint] Reporting without naming names

The best thing about returning to Korea for a few days recently was the old faces and familiar haunts. My friends, both Korean and foreigners, are as dear to me as ever, but much has changed.

Women’s skirts and shorts are much shorter than I remember only three years ago. Attractive new parks have been built on waste sites in my old neighborhoods of Segeomjeong and Pyeongchang-dong. Sadly, favorite landmarks like Gwanghwamun, Namdaemun and City Hall are now hidden behind construction curtains. Unlike most of my friends, I like the golden statue of Sejong outside the theater named after him.

Perhaps most surprisingly of all, I still remember enough of my Korean language not to have embarrassed myself too badly in front of my wonderful old instructor, teacher Lee.

It was three or four days before I became aware though of a particularly striking difference between the Seoul I remember and the one before me now: Where are the cops? And the demonstrations?

When I first came to Seoul in 2001, I found it the most heavily policed free country I had ever seen. Squads of truncheon-bearing police patrolled up and down Sejongno or took their lunches at curbside next to heavily reinforced police buses. And it seemed that on every other block stood someone protesting some injustice perpetrated by the government, the United States or North Korea.

The JoongAng Daily carried one front-page photo shot from above, showing about 20 policemen forming a tight ring around a single protester.

The presidency of Kim Dae-jung is usually described as “liberal,” but it was awfully jumpy back then about citizen agitation.

I suppose the tension died down gradually throughout my six and a half years in Korea without my really noticing it. It took returning after an absence to see the contrast between the nervous Seoul of 2001 and the calm city of 2010.

Koreans to whom I mentioned my observation appeared startled. None of them, it seemed, had noticed the difference.

“It’s usually spring when the labor unions demonstrate,” one ventured by way of half-hearted explanation.

“It’s the economy,” adjudged another. “People are more worried about their paychecks than politics.”

But police used to be out in force in all seasons and all economic conditions.

Well, all for the better. Korea is a freer, more confident society than it was a few years ago. Now, if we can just work on another pet issue of mine.

I was interviewed on the TBS “Evening News” radio show. The host, Ahn Jung-hyun, was pleasant, professional and well-prepared. She led me through some reminiscences about the early days of this newspaper, when I was its editor.

Then she asked me about the Korean media’s practice of refusing to name criminal suspects. Evidently, she had heard that as editor I had defended “the public’s right to know.”

It was not quite for that reason, but I did favor printing suspects’ names.

In one especially ridiculous case, the police had disclosed that they had mounted a nationwide manhunt for a dangerous armed robber “identified only as Cho.” There was not even a physical description, such as the suspect’s age or height, that might have prompted tips from alert citizens.

Cho? There must be 2 million Chos in Korea. I knew several of them myself. Should I call the cops and turn them all in?

Withholding names supposedly protects the reputation of an individual who may later be found innocent. And the right of personal reputation is safeguarded in the Korean constitution, as is, in contradiction, the right of the press to gather and publish news freely. Reputation is important. But in many countries - and not so long ago in Korea - police and courts got away with operating in secrecy. People would be seized and simply disappear into the punishment apparatus. No arrest was announced, no charge filed.

Disclosing names, I explained on the radio, is a protection to the accused. I was glad to hear that there is now discussion of this topic in media circles.

While we are at it, let’s rethink another staple of Korean - and U.S. - journalism: the anonymous source.

We will never get rid of it. Journalists and sources play each other all the time, trading information and seeking access. In general, the reporter must gauge the source’s motive for demanding anonymity. Is he trying to tarnish a rival? Plant a rumor? It’s a delicate balance to strike.

But in Korea the use of anonymity used to go to absurd lengths. We sometimes would report official government statistics and tie them to “a source who requested anonymity.”

Why? I was told that it was a tradition of reticence in Confucian society not to put one’s name forward and not to call attention to oneself as an individual. All right, but then why not just say “the Labor Ministry announced,” rather than intimate that our intrepid reporter had a pipeline to a secret insider?

Sometimes anonymity simply covers sloppy practices. I was once presented a story alleging that “more and more” doctors were engaged in some illicit practice. The evidence was a single anecdote about a single doctor “identified only as Cho,” and told by “a source who requested anonymity.” When you take the trouble to report the story with names and facts, I said, I will think about printing it.

The importance of accountability in news sourcing becomes clear when the paper publishes a story that really does require granting anonymity to a source. Not long ago this newspaper reported that Kim Jong-il’s subordinates may be lying to the North Korean leader. The story speculated that either Kim’s son, Kim Jong-un, was trying to elbow his father aside, or the underlings, having witnessed recent executions of officials involved in policy failures, are simply too frightened to tell their boss the truth.

Who says so? “Sources in Seoul informed of North Korean politics.” And who informs these sources? Some agent who picked up a rumor? North Korea spreading disinformation? It’s impossible to tell from the story.

The story rests entirely on the professional credibility of the newspaper reporter. One hopes that he isn’t the same fellow who served up the hokum about the criminality of “more and more” doctors.

*The writer is former chief editor of the JoongAng Daily.

By Harold Piper
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