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[Weekender] ‘Sewol disaster reveals failure of mass media as watchdog’

The Sewol tragedy has left many to blame.

The captain of the ill-fated ferry escaped, leaving hundreds of passengers trapped in the sinking boat. Maritime authorities closed their eyes to the ferry operator’s illegal business activities for years. But the country’s mainstream media also failed in their jobs right in the midst of the disaster.

Public criticism has been mounting against the Korean media as it relied too much on the government’s inconsistent and inaccurate announcements, releasing them online or on TV without verifying them.

Reporters also came under heavy fire for intruding on the victims’ grieving families, taking pictures without their permission, and other ethical breaches.

There were even some reporters who broke into the school that many of the victims attended and rummaged through the belongings they had left there in order to run a story about young students who died during the field trip.
Park Chong-ryul. ( Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Park Chong-ryul. ( Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

“Was that really necessary?” said Park Chong-ryul, president of the Journalists Association of Korea, in an interview with the Korea Herald.

“We need to ask ourselves whether that kind of distorted yellow journalism and an extreme competition for breaking news were really necessary at that time when the entire nation was holding on to a faint hope for a miracle.”

Park, a veteran reporter with CBS Korea, lamented on a growing number of people who have been calling reporters “giregi” ― a mix of the Korean words meaning reporter and trash ― in the wake of the Sewol tragedy. This is because the accident has fully exposed the dysfunction of mass media that dismissed the truth, published provocative stories and parroted the government’s announcements without checking the facts and questioning them, he said.

Stressing the media’s watchdog and public role, Park said reporters should have empathized with the public more and should have listened to them, instead of following the government’s reports and announcements on the ongoing investigations into the ferry disaster.

“The public wanted to know what really happened, not what the government says (happened). It became also obvious that journalists lacked a humanist approach when reporting about the disaster, and most importantly they made false reports,” he said.

Park and fellow journalists have recently been working on setting up guidelines for journalists when reporting on disasters like the Sewol. The nonbinding rules, set to be announced in June, are being drafted as part of self-reflection efforts of journalists in Korea, so that they do not repeat the mistakes made during the Sewol disaster.

“We should regret our wrongdoing and apologize to the public,” he said. “That is the starting point of where we could earn trust from the people again.”

Park, 47, was re-elected early this year to lead the association that has 8,900 members. He also serves as an adviser to the executive committee of the International Federation of Journalists.

He built his career at CBS starting in 1992 and wrote a series of award-winning stories on political and social affairs. He was a CBS correspondent in Washington from 2007 to 2010. Park is the author of two books titled “Black President in the White House” and “Political Reporters and Investigative Reporters.”

The reason why reporters are being criticized is because they have increasingly become “writing machines” to survive in the highly competitive news media industry and the changing media environment.

Calling reporters “fish in a bowl,” Park said, unlike in the past, reporters should realize that they are being watched.

“Things are different now. In this digital era when the public is given free access to information, reporters are also being watched by the public,” he said.

To meet the public demand on truth, journalists should never forget the passion they had years before.

“Reporters relied on government’s reports because they are used to dictating their words and publishing them without proper filtering,” he said. “This is dangerous. Reporters should never forget about their passion to fight against injustice.

“Be not afraid. This is why we exist as reporters.”

By Cho Chung-un (
Korea Herald daum