So begins my first real angry rant against the embarrassingly low level of Korean journalism in general, and lack of a sense of professional ethics specifically. After talking with a journalist friend of mine about the possibility of blogging and podcasting about certain topics, I have now come to realize, up close and personal, how little the truth matters in Korean journalism. And before some of you knee-jerk nationalists start tearing your hair out and pounding away at your keyboards, let me just make this clear from the git-go: according to Korean law, having told the truth is completely invalid as a defense against accusations of libel.
For those of you who are already aware of this fact, you can move on down already to a juicier part of this post. For those of you not in the know, think about the chilling effect this has on efforts to report on substantial issues here, as well as the suppressive function this plays in a society that has never really valued a truly independent and critical media. Libel is defined as any news that causes a party damage, regardless of whether or not what has been reported is, in fact, true.
This is irritating as all hell, and according to my knowledge of history, places the Korean media on a par with the state of things for the American media circa 1733, in the case of New York v. John Peter Zenger, when truth wasn't a recognized defense against libel. Oh, wait – even though there was no legal basis for doing so, the court still found for Zenger. So I guess that particular court in the 18th century is still more liberal than one you'd likely find in Korea in 2005.
I don't like to be comparative and thereafter judgmental, but American journalism, despite its many problems, corporate connections, recent pattern of pussyfooting around the President, and general lameness, journalists are still beholden to a high standard of professional ethics.
For example, there was the Jayson Blair embarrassment that plagued the New York Times. Basically, a young reporter had simply reported on things he hadn't actually seen, events he hadn't actually attended, or interviews he actually hadn't conducted, with people he had sometimes not even met. For this, the New York Times received a black eye and perhaps a permanent scar; this was something that, on any level, is completely unacceptable and would lead to the end of any journalist's career.
In Korea, all of the above practices are standard practice. I have personally been asked or privy to conversations in which Korean reporters have asked the promoters or organizers of events to write their own stories, then submit them to the reporter for "cleaning up" and final publication. The mutual benefit is supposed to be that the interested parties get to have a glowing report or review on their event or organization, while the reporter gets to do less work and cool his or her heels.
As a photographer and sometimes de facto photojournalist, I pay close attention to the basic standards of ethics and participate in the extreme handwringing that goes on over how to not step over the many fines lines dividing truth and misrepresentation with visual images. Take the case of Colin Crawford, fired over manipulating a portion of a digital image purely "to improve the composition" – an aesthetic choice, but one which altered reality and crossed way over the line. Yet when he was fired and blackballed from the industry forever, there was no debate at all as to whether he had stepped over the line and indeed deserved to be finished as a photographer forever. Because once you step over that line that divides the very separate worlds of fact and fiction – and no matter how postmodernists want to reduce everything to text and make the very good point that many truths are in fact textual, contextual, or just plain relative, photomanipulation is actively lying if passed off as a raw image – once you step over that line, you lose trust.
Journalists in the States understand the seriousness of making even the tiniest alterations in images, even if there are, of course, infractions, as there inevitably will be. But that's why photo editors and others responsible for preserving journalistic integrity are vigilant against just this kind of abuse and take such actions with a great deal of draconian seriousness. Once you lose the trust of your readers and viewers, once the line between fact and fiction is understood to be porous, you might as well through up your hands, check in your notepads and pens, and leave to reporting to rank amateurs who will make up any story that seems most convenient or palatable. Well, that's what OhMyNews.com is famous for – it's no wonder that it sprang up first in Korea.
Not that "citizen reporting" is bad – as an alternative to a news media that is overwhelmingly rightist and in the pocket of the government, it's no surprise that this pops up as an appealing alternative. But looking at the heaps of the just plain false information and obviously biased reporting that was apparent in the media during late 2002 around the deaths of the two middle school girls, the state of the Korean media is simply embarrassing. Why? The Korean media, taken as a whole, from ample observation of my own as well as the input of friends who have worked in and around the business, is:
Unprofessional. Many of the "reporters" and "interviewers" are little more than college kids with a Sony VX-2000 and a short deadline to get soundbites along the lines of stories already pretty much written. Around the protests, I was approached by several camera "crews" with stickers from major networks on the camera, asking me what I thought "as an American" about the protests. When I offered my opinion that a lot of the anger here revolved around simple misinformation or accepted "facts" of the case that simply weren't true, in difficult-to-redit, complete sentences, they simply went through the motions and made haste to move on. I wasn't giving what they wanted – and angry, crazed American defending his country or the bleeding-heart liberal calling Bush dirty names. I also saw my picture show up on OhMyNews.com with the caption reading something along the lines of "foreign reporter covers the story" without my names or any other attribution. Probably, the photographer was either too lazy to bother or was too sheepish about have to "speak English" with me to get the proper information. Either way, he or she didn't know the proper protocols and didn't really seem too concerned about accuracy.
Unethical. I personally saw photographers posing members of the crowd, changing the compositions of elements of the pictures to make the perfect shot, stopping and interfering with the action of the scene for their convenience, and so on. The sadder thing is that people are used to that and find it acceptable, acquiescing and cooperating for the shot. On the reporting end, every time I have been interviewed by a Korean reporter, my quotes were completely changed into the realm of complete fiction, while words were attributed to me that I never, ever came close to uttering. Proper names were mispelled, dates were completely wrong, and even the basic gist of what I said has been more wrong than right. I've never been recorded to increase accuracy, and in most cases, even without a recorder, the amount of notetaking was light enough to make me nervous. I have seen reporters simply not show up and ask me or another person to simply write the story altogether to simply be submitted to the reporter. In fact, it is so bad that I am completely surprised to see a reporter not just taking good notes or trying to really get the facts straight, but often I am happy to even see the reporter show up at all.
Arrogant. For some reason, one that mostly must have to do with the self-importance that comes with walking around with the authority that comes from having expensive recording equipment and the mobility afforded by a big, laminated "PRESS" pass, Korean journalists are, as a whole, the most arrogant and self-important assholes I have ever seen. I once saw a crew from KBS walk right up to a grandma from the "House of Sharing" which houses former "comfort women" who are very media-savvy and suspicious of people worth being suspected – she was sitting taking a break from loud protesting, eating a bit of lunch, when the newscaster and her camera operator basically tromped through a crowd of kids sitting on the ground and got up in her face and didn't ask, but TOLD her "We're from KBS." Grandma basically told them to fuck off, but the lady kept insisting "But we're from KBS?! Don't you want to do an interview?" to the point where I wanted to go up and kick both their asses myself. Unfortunately, I have never met a non-arrogant news crew like that in Korea; the arrogance itself is something I could tolerate, but it's usually accompanied by either or both of the factors already listed above. This attitude trickles down to even the most juvenile journalistic outfits. At the opening of Suji's in Itaewon, some early-20-something, half-drunk, English-crazed girl came up to me with a camera and said "I wanna take your picture. So get together." I told her I didn't want my picture taken. She informed me, with an air of matter-of-fact arrogance, "It's for K-Scene Magazine," which covers the expat lifestyle here and is the student newspaper of the magazine world. She seemed genuinely shocked that I wasn't jumping at the chance to appear in a badly-done montage of party shots of mostly white men making stupid faces next to mostly red-faced Korean women trying to look non-plussed and cool around these "wild-n-crazy guys" at a (JOY!) real-live Western-style party! I'd rather appear in a love hotel sex scandal video, thank you very much. But she was acting as if she had been Weegee himself, reborn as a Korean girl in a frumpy party dress and bad shoes.
Now, you may be saying to yourself – this post is just me taking straight sucker punch shot at the Korean media. Or you might say it's arrogant of me to hold the Korean media up to American standards. I'd have to agree with you on both points. But it doesn't mean I'm not right.
"Korea" – especially through its media – seems to be constantly demanding more respect from the outside world, and/or more responsibility as a global player, with some of its own weight and influence to throw around. Well, playa, you either play according to big league rules or you get called bush league and thrown back to grow some. One can't have one's cake and eat it, too.
And I'm not complaining about dirty bathrooms or polluted factory towns. Ethical standards and basic professional ettiquette are not expensive, unattainable aspects of rich and monied moderntiy, determined by relative levels of economic development. The old argument "but Korea is still a developing country, cut us some slack" doesn't fly anymore; in fact, those wings should have been clipped some time ago. You don't see the "we're still a developing country" argument when Korea bids to host Olympic Games or major international conferences such as APEC this year.
But when there is an obvious lapse or sign of something left wanting, "poor me" comes out. Spare me. Korea wants to be treated like an international player, a true global citizen who wields great power and commands the world's respect? Then I'll say that Korea's media and sense of ethical conduct is on a par far below the radar of the positive image Korea feels it deserved. But I think that time hasn't come yet. To put it bluntly, the laws around the media, as well as the ethics held by those who produce it – are simply abysmal and need to be changed. It's simply embarrassing. Or at least it should be.