The weight of deathPARK HAE-LEE
The author is a political and international planning team reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Death is a subject the media likes to deal with. In the United States, obituary writers only write about death. In 2019, the New York Times published a book of obituaries.
William McDonald, obituary editor at the Times and editor of the book, wrote in the preface that the obituary desk at the New York Times was a place where the most outstanding reporters gathered.
On Women’s Day in 2018, the New York Times published obituaries that were more like a self-confession. An analysis on thousands of obituaries since the first issue was published in 1851 found most obituaries were for white men. Only one in five were about women. As a repentance, the Times published belated obituaries about 15 women.
Biological death is fair for everyone. But social death is not, especially how the media perceives it. When the death of an individual becomes a news story, private death is publicly discussed and is given social meaning. Some deaths are remembered while others are forgotten.
Someone is highlighted by the media, while another is featured in a minor story. For some, no record is kept. The media’s approach to death is sometimes unfair and irrational, as argued by Lee Wan-soo, a professor of media studies at Dongseo University, in his book “Sociology of Death.”
Tragic news about two 23-year-olds led to a debate over the weight death carries online. Sohn Jeong-min, a medical school student, was found dead in the Han River, while Lee Seon-ho was struck and killed by a heavy container at Pyeongtaek Port in Gyeonggi.
News stories about Sohn flooded online portals for two weeks, while Lee’s death has not not highlighted, just like the countless deaths of young contract workers who died without anyone noticing.
Of course, Sohn’s case is interesting. It began with a missing person’s case, and there are some odd factors. Sohn was drunk and found dead at the Han River Park, which people are familiar with, and there is deep-rooted distrust of police and public authority. That only contributed to the media circus.
Nevertheless, I cannot help but ask how seriously the media takes the two cases. Various speculative articles still fill portal sites’ news sections. Can Korean media really be as proud of this reporting just as the New York Times is proud to say that the most outstanding reporters write about death?