The media’s responsibility in crisisThe government has been kicked at daily for its incompetent crisis management in the face of the country’s worst-ever man-made maritime accident. The Sewol ferry has been capsized off the southern coast for nearly a week now, but authorities have continued to stumble in their salvage mission - they can’t even accurately update the rescue operation. The government has completely lost the confidence of not only the bereaved families but also the rest of the population. The media, which has been running 24-hour coverage of the accident, has also been as tactless and unreliable as the government.
The best example of this is the media interview with a diver surnamed Hong. The 25-year-old woman, a fraud who claimed to have joined the rescue mission as a licensed diver, appeared on a cable news channel and criticized the government for blocking divers from entering the water. She added that divers were told to kill time and even to go home. Her interview quickly went viral, painting government authorities as grossly insensitive while hundreds of students remained trapped underwater. The police decided to seek an arrest warrant for Hong for spreading false information, and the broadcaster apologized for the incident, but it raised questions about the reliability of the overall news coverage of the Sewol crisis and the hyper-competition in reporting the disaster.
The three nationwide TV networks were no better. One terrestrial broadcaster calmly calculated death insurance for the victims while parents and families were still desperately waiting for news of their loved ones during the early stages of the rescue operation. TV news repeatedly showed the face of a 6-year-old girl who was rescued from the boat and poked a microphone in her face while asking if she knew the whereabouts of her other family members. Another broadcaster sent out a flashing headline claiming that divers had discovered piles of bodies after they entered the ferry.
Journalists have been on the scene around the clock to cover the heartbreaking disaster. They chase prosecutors, police, bureaucrats, victims, families and experts and somehow try to filter out news amid the flood of information in a short period of time. But that does not pardon them for reckless, yellow journalism. The obsession to break the news and competition for viewership can jeopardize social credibility.
The media was severely censured for excessive and sensational journalism during the Daegu subway disaster in 2003. Experts advised the media to draw up a common code for disaster coverage, but that never happened. The Journalists Association of Korea plans to resume that work. But before they embark on that mission, the media should stick to at least three principles - double-check the facts, think on the side of the victims’ families and avoid infringing on human rights. The media should be at its most calm and truthful during grief-stricken times like these.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 22, Page 30