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How Korean Media Got The Ferry Tragedy All Wrong

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FERRY KOREA
Chung Sung-Jun via Getty Images

On Wednesday 16, Korean media broadcasted the news about the sinking of the ferry in Jindo during the whole day. It was horrible. And the current state of Korean media is as horrible as the news.

The HBO series "The Newsroom" is about people who produce news. This TV show, which realistically conveys the atmosphere of a newsroom centered around well-known anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), gives the impression of witnessing how real news is made through the integration of actual contemporary events. In doing so, it explores the value of fairness in televised journalism.

I think the most impressive scene was the ending of the first season's fourth episode, which depicts the process of collecting information and preparing the news broadcast following a sudden shooting that occurred one weekend in Arizona. The essence of this breaking news is the fact that Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot while attending an event. As the shooting is reported on the radio, all cable news channels start to do a follow up on her death, and Will's newsroom starts to buzz as well. Yet the staff merely observe the situation and gird themselves for the official confirmation of her death instead of joining the other media's series of newsflashes on inaccurate pieces of information. But the broadcasting station's president's young son starts to press them about why they are not officially announcing Gifford's death, and he even storms into the newsroom in the midst of newscast. Then a staff member says, "It is a person's life. It is not the news but the doctor who should announce it." Finally we learn that the other media outlets carried a false report as the hospital announces that Giffords is still alive and undergoing surgery. McAvoy's newsroom has a chance to report the truth only by being patient and fact-checking the information.

It was a tough day, and another tough day continues. Since the morning of the 16, news reported the sinking of a ferry in the sea around Jindo. Around 10 am, a government brief announced that a total of 477 passengers were on board this Jindo-bound ferry, including 325 students of Danwon High School who were on a school trip. It was agonizing just to hear about it. Fortunately the follow-up news reported that all the students would be rescued, and at around 11 am the students' parents received text messages that they all had been. Further news, however, announced that this previous report was false.

The number of missing persons continued to change, and even the total number of passengers began to appear unclear. The government's announcement of the number of missing persons behaved like a rubber-band, increasing at one moment and decreasing at another. Accordingly, the media continued to correct their initial figures. The worst situation occurred at around 4:30 pm. The media corrected the number of rescues from 368 to 164, cutting the initial number in half, following the discovery of an error in counting. Not much progress has been made regarding the number of further rescues since this dreadful news had drowned people's hope for a fully successful rescue operation. As if encouraging this dark premonition, night set in, and my heart continued to sink.

A reporter sullenly expressed complaints that the government's data had never been so inaccurate. But was the government's data the only problem? The media race to report on the event, which started around 10 am, was widely inaccurate.

Without exception, online and television news, including public broadcast and cable channels, put up the sign "breaking news" for all information received from the scene of the tragic events in Jindo. All reported on the government's announcement. No one asked any questions. The will to report was stronger than the will to know. The speed of information was more important than its accuracy. It seemed like there were no reporters, only stenographers. The present state of media clearly came into view. Jindo became a battlefield for a media competing for breaking news and accelerated by online news portals. In the meantime, unspeakable things started appearing in the press under the guise of an accurate report. An article of The Etoday, inconceivably entitled "Titanic, Poseidon, and What Other Movies of Boating Accidents?" was published around 2.40 pm and swiftly denounced by the public. It didn't matter. For it was an "abusive" article that sought to attract more traffic by being controversial. In 15 minutes this media outlet displayed its full identity as media by publishing another article with the scandalous headline "SKT Sends Relief and Installs a Temporary Base-Station 'Handsome~Handsome'" (translator's note: SKT is a telecommunications company and "Handsome~Handsome" is the title of a song in one of their well-known commercials). The article has since been deleted.

On the other hand, a few internet media outlets started delivering articles focusing on the ferry's insurance coverage. Chosun.com released an article with the headline "Sewol Ferry's Insurance: Dongbu Insurance for Students and Meritz Marine Insurance for the Ferry." As if encouraged by these online articles, the public broadcasting company MBC reported a detailed analysis of how much compensation for the loss could be claimed based on the insurance policy. Such reports could have given rise to conspiracy theories about the sinking being a form of product placement for the insurance company. On the same day, News 9 of JTBC began with a long apology by the anchorman Suk-hee Son: "Today many audience members took offense at some questions that our reporter asked a rescued student during the news of the ferry's sinking. No excuses and explanations will be necessary. As a senior anchor and the chief executive of the news department, it is my fault that I didn't relay what I had learned to junior anchors. My sincere apologies." His apology felt like a ray of sunshine in the middle of the news media's daylong battle for fast information on Wednesday. Media's responsibility to acknowledge errors and apologize for them is as important as the imperative of impartial reporting. At least News 9, or at least Suk-hee Son stood up to that responsibility. How fortunate.

"We have to recover media. We have to make it an honorable profession again. We have to make sure that the evening news delivers information and provides a discussion forum suiting a great country and that it recognizes and respects etiquette and thus returns to its original mission. Forget the superficial, no more gossip or voyeurism. Deliver the truth to the public even if they are blind -- not the story people want to hear. Let the media become what binds us together."

These are lines from "The Newsroom". Ironically, today's Korean media behaves in a different way. Something horrible happened, and the media delivers the news. Before relaying the truth, however, a hideous tendency takes over. Their inaccurate reporting tramples on the wounded victims. We are still waiting to hear the information we want to know, yet incorrect information is rashly offered instead.

Somebody's tragedy becomes a show, sold and used up in a second. It appears as if all media outlets were on the same page because they were all shameless. The behavior of the press on Wednesday was no better than selling goods on the shelves of online shopping malls and home shopping channels. There was no courtesy for the news' source nor for its readers. Jindo was struck by a salesman's desire to sell anything. On social networks, reporters were called "Giregi" in mockery, which is a neologism of "gija" (reporter) and "ssuregi" (garbage). It is an attack that summarizes the current state of Korean media, a bitter analogy of how language is used and abused for the sake of profit.

The film "Good Night, and Good Luck" directed by George Clooney is about Edward R. Murrow, CBS's famous news broadcaster. He never gave up on the voice of truth during the wave of McCarthyism in America during the 1940s and was a persistent, contributing factor when Joseph McCarthy stepped down. Murrow said, "TV can teach us. It may even enlighten us and inspire us. But in order for it to do so, we must use it for that purpose. Otherwise, TV is nothing but a stupid box." It is always apparent that media must pursue truth. But pursuing truth requires resolution and ability. For the process of approaching truth is not possible through merely planning and aiming for justice. People in today's society are surrounded by many languages. They share all sorts of information via smart phones and see events all over the world. But being able to assess all this information is an individual responsibility.

The reader knows, can know, or must know. It is not only media that produces gossip. Delivering public information that potentially has a great influence on individuals' lives, which is commonly known as "the right to know," is the purpose of journalistic media. The most important thing is whether media is functioning properly or not. Next is whether we are capable of assessing the information it reports. As important as the appearance of a media with convictions might be the public itself who can make sure the media stays true to its mission.

Edward Murrow remarks, "To persuade others, you must be trusted; to be trusted, you must inspire confidence; and to inspire confidence, you must be honest." It is ideal that the public and media trust one another. A society that features a trustworthy media and a supportive public can move forward. And we can and must find better values. News is still being reported from Jindo. I just saw the news that the second part of the search has begun. We must not give up hope. Media must become a newsstand that banks on the public's desire for hope. Please promise to do your best today. Do not drive for simple gossip but for the truth that is necessary for everyone. Make the mere show go away.

Above all, I earnestly hope for the long-awaited news of further rescues. I pray.

And my warmest tribute to the memory of the deceased.

This post has been translated from Korean and was originally published on HuffPost Korea.