Turn Korean media upside downOne thing is clear: The inability of the Korean media to anticipate even the possibility of a Trump victory will be remembered as a tremendous intelligence failure that has left the great halls of journalistic pomp looking distinctly shabby.
Don’t tell me that the United States media also got it wrong. Major newspapers in the United States continuously wrote about a Clinton victory, even trying to make that scenario seem more likely by using the terminology “probability of a Clinton victory” (92%) instead of percent of people who intend to vote for Clinton. But sloppy journalism is America’s problem, it does not have to be Korea’s problem
Many informed Americans were aware of the bias in the mainstream media during the election, and knew about the unprofessional decision of reporters to coordinate with the Clinton camp concerning their reporting, and about the donations to the Clinton campaign by media companies.
Months of unfavorable news about Clinton had done tremendous damage to her credibility with voters.
But the Korean media repeated the headlines of the mainstream U.S. media and readers assumed the election was already decided.
Although Korea has one of the most educated populations in the world, and numerous reporters who are extremely fluent in English, the rules of Korean media meant that almost none of those reporters consulted the large number of journals, blogs and other thoughtful reporting in the United States that suggested that the election might be close.
For that matter, if Korean foreign correspondents had talked with working class people in America they would have discovered that minorities were unenthusiastic about Clinton and that many whites were enthusiastic about Trump. But foreign correspondents will never meet ordinary Americans at the pompous events held at Washington think tanks.
Korean reporters, unlike Korean manufacturers of smartphones or of container ships, do not have as their goal being the best in the world; they work hard, but their newspapers are dedicated to digesting quickly and summarizing the news available from foreign news agencies, not in developing the domestic capacity to create entirely original and distinctly Korean perspectives on news and global affairs for both domestic and global consumption.
That is a terrible shame because Korea clearly has all the assets needed to be a leader in journalism. Korea has an educated population with many near-native speakers of English, Chinese and Japanese and there are an incredible number of PhDs in diverse fields. As a nation not encumbered with the tradition of imperialism that warps media reporting so often, Korea is well positioned to build a new journalistic tradition of its own, with roots in Korea’s own culture, rather than copying content from abroad.
Part of the process requires giving up all politesse. Foreign correspondents are not there just to make friends with the powerful and to play golf, American politicians, officials, and lawyers must be subject to tough unrelenting questions to get to the bottom of things. So also reporters must avoid being seduced by carefully crafted articles written in an authoritative tone that are meant to be misleading.
Journalists must read broadly from different sources and then use their imagination. To be a good journalist, one must first imagine five or six scenarios that could explain what is happening in politics. One then inspects the facts carefully and slowly eliminates those scenarios that do not hold up — as did Sherlock Homes. That process will get you close to the truth. But if one does not use one’s imagination to postulate what might be, one will quickly fall into the trap of limiting oneself to the scenarios which are offered up by interested parties.
Newspapers should hold up an ideal of the pursuit of truth with the intention of providing practical information for the general reader that will help him to make informed decisions. As such, the media is critical for the nation from the perspective of the ordinary man as a means to assure we have an educated public that can make informed decisions within a democratic system. Reporters should feel a deep responsibility to make complex issues accessible in an original manner.
Media has become a market in recent years, but it does not have to be. The sooner Korea snaps out of that haze, the faster it will be able to objectively judge its own interests and serve as a global leader.
At first readers may be put off by writing that actually locates issues in their historical context and makes proposals for long-term solutions. But over time, I believe, we can lead the public back to responsible politics, get them to stop being consumers and become engaged citizens.
Korea will face tremendous challenges in the years ahead that will require us to pull together as a nation and to make informed decisions.
This is the moment for a deep commitment to journalism of the very highest standards.
*The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.