Television reporters follow Lee Jun-seok, captain of the Sewol ferry that sank Wednesday off the southwestern coast, as he is escorted in for questioning Thursday night. / Yonhap
By Kim Tong-hyung
It was 11 years ago when the public recoiled from the sensational media coverage of the subway arson attack in Daegu that killed nearly 200 people. The harsh criticism forced the Journalists Association of Korea to announce a set of guidelines for its members on reporting disasters and major accidents:
Do not allow your reporting to disrupt rescue efforts; do not provoke unnecessary fear; thoroughly evaluate uncertain claims to prevent misinformation; do not force victims or their family members into interviews; reduce the use of close camera angles; do not use pictures and videos that are excessively shocking or provocative; refrain from revealing personal details of the survivors and the dead.
Those are seven rules for journalists to live by. Too bad they matter only until the next deadly event.
In a surprise to not many, the Korean media coverage of the Jindo ferry disaster overall has been sloppy, unintelligent and somehow naive and unethical at the same time.
YTN, the first broadcaster to provide live coverage from the scene Wednesday morning, took up and ran with a school official's comment and reported that all of the passengers were alive and safe.
The news host practically celebrated during a giddy interview with one of the rescued high-school students. The anchor was looking subdued hours later when the government revised the number of people unaccounted for to over 290.
YTN's blunder highlighted a slew of mistakes news organizations made during the early hours of their coverage of the ship sinking, Wednesday. It could be argued that much of initial confusion was inevitable ― the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters appeared to be in a state of panic itself.
But the quality of news reporting has actually gotten worse since then.
As rescue workers risked their own safety fighting bad weather, murky waters and strong currents to approach the ship that evening, MBC used chart graphs to explain how much families would get in insurance money should their loved ones be found dead.
SBS coaxed an interview out of a rescued six-year-old girl struggling to cope with the likely possibility that the rest of her family were dead. A JTBC news host had to ask one of the surviving high-school students whether she knew that many of her schoolmates were dead, to which she replied ''no'' before sobbing uncontrollably.
MBN showed it will do anything to boost audience numbers, even if it means embracing conspiracy theories. The cable channel on Friday morning interviewed a woman who claimed to be a volunteer diver and accused the government of deliberately slowing down the rescue operations although divers were hearing voices from inside the ship.
After the rest of the world reminded him how ridiculous the story was, Lee Dong-won, MBN's chief news editor, appeared on air and bowed in apology.
Newspapers and online news outlets were not much better.
Chosun Ilbo, Kookmin Ilbo and Money Today used Internet headlines to explain that the students on the ship were insured by Dongbu Fire & Marine Insurance and the teachers by Mertiz, which may or may not have been intended as a service for the companies that double as their advertisers.
E-Today, a business newspaper, explained how SK Telecom was helping the rescue efforts by installing more telecommunication equipment in the port area. The story's headline ended with ''looking good, looking good,'' a line from the mobile-phone carrier's commercial theme song.
Newsis, a wire service, was criticized for dramatizing one of its published pictures. The photo in dispute was taken after a reporter took the personal belongings of one of the dead students and put them on his classroom desk at Danwon High School in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province.
Park So-jung, a Yonhap News reporter, was seen on Twitter asking Danwon High School students whether any of their schoolmates sent them photos from inside the ship.
Not everyone deserves to be blamed. There still are journalists on Jindo continuing tough on-the-ground reporting with a dedication to accuracy and fairness. It will be one of their stories that will explain what happened most fully and how it will affect the lives of people involved.
Regrettably, the works of these professionals are often burried under an avalanche of trashy content that reduce news organizations into slaves for clicks.