If I am — after a decade of writing in student newspapers — expected to be in any position to have formulated some opinion of what newswriting should be, I unfortunately must admit that I have a far better understanding of what it should not be. When I’m writing or reading news, that tells me to dismiss the trivial issues, such as grammar and punctuation. Structure and formatting are of little concern, too. Stylistic choice and register — what seemed to matter significantly at some point — eventually faded away as an abstract rule that is barely adhered to as I tended to write with greater freedom in my columns. Many other aspects of newswriting also soon collapsed into a set of lesser criteria, and the recent unfolding of events over the past three months in Korea and the news media’s portrayal of that unfolding clearly highlighted the very few things that did remain important.
For years, news in both print and electronic media has been blamed for its producers’ excessive intimacy with government representatives, corporate executives, and other producers. More often than not, news that could potentially spur a public outrage was overshadowed by highly yellow-journalistic rumors or showbiz scandals; so often were such decoy techniques used that they were satirically depicted multiple times through pop culture, including the song High Technology by Epik High and this year’s highest-earning Korean film so far, The King. Repeated distractions led the audience — myself included — to learn to disregard the bait and search for “what’s really up” every time something “big” made it to the front page. Some news media attempted to counter the learned readership by taking their disinforming schemes to the next level; fraudulent stories and scandal-mongering articles were circulated on social media, with the potential to mislead millions of people and rob them of their access to information. Fake news flourished; readers were swayed left and right, front and back. With limited access to information, they grew tired of debating amongst themselves about which story is “real” or “true”. Distrust prevailed among the readers, and the entirety of news media was often undeservedly denounced as “trash” or “junk”. It was not long before a news source answered to the call of the fatigued readers.
News in electronic media was quicker to act upon the call, and on October 24, 2016, JTBC knocked over the first of the dominoes with its news report on what was believed to be Soon-sil Choi’s tablet PC, used to receive and edit highly confidential Blue House documents. Of course, this honorable mention is intended not to enthrone JTBC as the perfect news reporting entity, but simply to acknowledge the fact that it was morally alert enough to push through with what ended up to be one of the greatest scandals in the nation’s history. That little push was most likely what every other news source also needed in order to abandon any malpractice — such as the aforementioned decoys or even complete cover-ups — and disseminate follow-up news stories on the scandal. SBS turned its back on the Park administration and took on the scandal step by step. Its news reports and investigative documentaries have been well-received by many, and some say it is regaining its 90s’ and early 2000s’ glory of being the most objective news in Korea. MBC, KBS, and YTN followed suit, and so did the web editions of The Korea Times and The Korea Herald, despite their initial reluctance to report thoroughly on the scandal.
News in print media gradually caught up with the one in electronic media. JoongAng Ilbo, the largest shareholder and supporter of JTBC, started printing sensitive and shocking findings day and night and reached every corner of the nation by flexing its distribution network as one of the three biggest newspapers in Korea. Dong-a Ilbo shattered its long- term allegiance to Samsung and began exposing the darker sides of the multinational corporation, including — and especially — those related to Choi. Chosun Ilbo has once been brutally criticized for its support of TVChosun — which has a record of reporting fraudulent stories that favor the incumbent administration and political party — but has now regained some of its reputation as the nation’s most-read newspaper.
Reverting to what newswriting should be, I believe that one question must be the single most influential stimulus for all newswriters, online and offline. This one question — one that The KAIST Herald applicants are most often asked at their interview — is “What is journalism to you?” The sheer variety of responses has never failed to bring about pleasant surprises, but it is both a shame and regret that only towards my last years at Herald has the idea of what journalism is reoccurred to me. In light of the past months’ endeavor, as an amateur newswriter, I would like to congratulate those professionals who put an end to journalistic malpractice, but more importantly, I urge the rest of them to ask themselves the same question and make it the first and the last thing of every day they sit at their desk.