The Left and Right Hand of the Korean Media

July 24, 2008

Papers with agendas: this is by no means a shock.   However, I thought this article would be a good introduction to those less familiar with how the media lines up in Korea.  And here from the Korea Times also.

Editorial standards in Korea evolved from state-controlled media where standards for givens in other newspapers like three sources were overlooked.  The Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club published a great book for its 50th anniversary in 2006 called Korea Witness – it looks at how news has been reported in Korea over the last 100 or so years, written by various former and current members of the Club.  There’s some info here at SFCC legend Donald Kirk’s website.

The differing perspective of media, or perhaps what could be called ‘misreporting’, is illustrated by the recent MBC TV issue re: the misleading beef documentary that some believe sparked the beef protests.  I’ve experienced this distortion of factual information in the pursuit of the better headlines myself through work I’ve done with clients and how damaging it can be.  That said, I’ve experienced it first hand surrounding issues clients have faced in Ireland and England, so it’s nothing unique to Korea – journalist and the media are by no means infallible.   To be honest, it comes down to whose the most trusted source of information and is why organizations need to engage media in order to disengage.  A paradox that escapes some people!


What is popular may not always be best

January 4, 2008

According to today’s JoongAng Daily, the new administration may revive the practice of having press rooms in government agencies.

I certainly don’t want to use this space to discuss politics, but irrespective of how you feel about outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun, his proposal to close down the press rooms and replace them with regularly scheduled briefings, while not popular with the media, was in my opinion one of his smarter moves.

The press offices were, ironically, originally installed to help the Japanese colonial government control the Korean media. With the journalists literally under the noses of the government it was very simple to apply the requisite pressure to ensure that the ‘correct’ story made it to the media.

As Korean democracy developed, the press rooms became a way for reporters to have almost unlimited access to lawmakers. That may seem like a good thing on the surface, but it is at least a part of the pervasive problem that Korea faces in terms of confidentiality. Essentially, any individual lawmaker could go to a reporter and discuss government policy – real or imagined – irrespective of how far developed such policy was. The press rooms, far from being a resource for media to understand policy, bcame a tool through which individuals could leak information for their own political purposes. They also became comfortable and very lucrative postings for Korean reporters.

Roh Moo Hyun’s proposal that the press rooms should be replaced with official briefings was greeted with outrage by the media because it cut at the heart of this cozy relationship. However, the proposal makes a lot of sense. All organizations benefit from a single, unified voice when it comes to dealing with media. A company would be insane to allow reporters complete access to everything that goes on internally. Many of the conversations going on in within a company are confidential, speculative, exploratory or just plain dumb. No-one would expect to see those conversations in the media. When a formal position is reached, however, then the company needs to speak with one voice.

Why should government be different? I’m all in favor of a free press, and I’m not suggesting that governments call a press briefing, hand reporters a story and then leave while the reports tug their forelocks, say “Thank ‘ee sir” and print the government document word for word. A press briefing should be a forum for debate and governments should expect tough questions.

Holding a press briefing has the virtue that whatever is being discussed is an official government position. It may not be law, it may not be policy, but it is at least an on-the-record statement of the direction in which the government is leaning. A minor politician discussing internal government issues with a reporter in order to raise his own profile is little more than gossip.

I’ve discussed in the past the danger inherent in the lack of a firm press policy. The Korea tradition of un-named sources coupled with a general lack of discretion in talking to reporters causes problems for Korean and non-Korean organizations alike.

Other developed economies get along fine without press rooms and enjoy a healthy and widely respected free media. Lee Myung Bak’s proposal to go back to the press room system, while popular with the media, ensures that the general public will continue to be fed a diet of speculation and internal gossip rather than clear indications of what the government is actually doing with their tax money. In my opinion, that it is a step backward, not forward.