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[Weekender] Life as a Korean journalist

Reporters face challenges from digital platforms, tougher competition

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Published : 2014-05-16 21:28
Updated : 2014-05-16 21:56

Journalists and journalism in Korea are going through a critical time, as clearly demonstrated by the recent ferry disaster. The tragedy highlighted conventional media’s shortcomings as well as the need for news outlets to exercise scrutiny.

The accident, which has left more than 300 people dead or missing, also raised serious questions about the work ethics of news organizations.

Pressured by increasing competition and worsening finances, many news organizations have resorted to yellow journalism, which is slowly changing the public’s opinion of reporters.
Reporters wait for the arrival of Yoo Byung-eon outside Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office on Friday. ( Yonhap)

During the dictatorial regime of the 1980s, the media served as a catalyst for democratization movements, with some journalists risking torture and even their lives to report the gross injustices carried out by the authorities.

In contrast, journalists of today’s Korea are often held in low regard.

The rise of the Internet has brewed competition among news outlets exponentially while their profits have dived. According to financial authorities’ data, most major news organizations saw their sales and profits dive last year, with some seeing double-digit drops in profits.

Such developments have pushed many local news organizations to engage in link bait, dubbed “fishing stories” in Korean ― the act of using sensationalist headlines and provocative images to lure Web surfers to their websites.

The tactic, along with other unsavory methods used by some reporters, led to the birth of the term “giregi” ― a combination of the Korean words for “reporter” and “garbage” ― that expresses the public’s distrust and frustration.

Whether it is generally true or not, the ferry disaster showed that the public’s distrust of the mainstream media is at least partially deserved.

In the wake of the tragedy, news outlets engaged in reckless competition to break news leading to unverified stories, disregarding the emotions of families of victims and survivors. One broadcaster even aired a lengthy interview with a woman who falsely claimed to be a volunteer diver to launch serious accusations against the government using rumors she gathered off the Internet. 

Experts say that positive and negative views about journalists have always coexisted, but public distrust of mainstream media has increased with accessibility of information.

“The routes for verifying information and gaining information have diversified. (The media) no longer has a monopoly on information,” said professor Bae Jung-keun of Sookmyung Women’s University. He added that with the public’s increased ability to verify media reports, their distrust has grown.

“The number of sensationalist stories have increased to raise traffic (on media firms’ websites), and this contributes to lowering the media’s credibility.”

Although the tides are turning much more quickly, the country’s media industry is not new to change.

Like most things in Korea, the media industry has undergone dramatic changes since the 1950-1953 Korean War.
Reporters ask questions to Kim Han-shik, CEO of the sunken ferry Sewol’s operator Chonghaejin Marine Co., as he leaves the Mokpo Branch of Gwangju District Court last Friday. (Yonhap)

In the years that followed, the media was subjected to government manipulation and oppression, which peaked in the 1980s under the Chun Doo-hwan administration. Chun, who took power in a coup in 1979, forced a merger of all media outlets into a state-run agency in an attempt to manipulate public opinion. Journalists who were resistant or critical of the government were fired, and news agencies were banned from stationing correspondents in regional cities.

In the late 1980s, oppression of media began to lift, and aided by the introduction of the Internet, Korea now has a wide spectrum of small and large media organizations.

In addition, a career in journalism comes with a string of more conventional downsides such as low pay and irregular working hours.

According to data by Ipsos Korea, the average reporter earns a salary of 45.5 million won ($44,300) and whips out 31.3 articles a week. A reporter’s work day lasts around 10 hours and 40 minutes, more than 70 minutes longer than that of a typical office worker.

However, journalism remains one of the more difficult professions to get into, with applicants often competing against odds of hundreds to one.

“It is because journalism is a profession that can change society. Looking at reporters from the readers’ point of view, and looking at journalism as a desired career path are very different,” Pae said.

By Choi He-suk and Suh Ye-seul 
(cheesuk@heraldcorp.com) (sys@heraldcorp.com)

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