South Korean TV Reporters Apologize for Their Flawed Ferry Coverage

South Korean media have faced criticism over their coverage of the Sewol ferry disaster, which resulted in the deaths of over 280 people. As the government fumbled its handling of the tragedy, many mainstream conservative outlets were accused of parroting authorities’ excuses or not reporting on their blunders intentionally.

KBS (Korea Broadcasting System) – the country's largest public broadcasting station, where the government allegedly wields influence in top managerial appointments – was among them. Now, its own journalists have made a daring confession, calling for changes in their skewed pro-government reports and apologizing for their biased Sewol coverage.

Over 50 young KBS reporters posted apology letters on the company's intranet for ignoring the victims families’ voices. Some of their apology letters have made headlines [ko].

Below is Global Voices’ translation of the highlights: 

세월호 침몰 속보를 접한 취재팀이 비행기에 내려 처음 향한 곳은 팽목항이 아닌 목포였습니다. 현장으로 가지 않은 기자들…우리는 현장에서 울렸던 울음과 우리를 불렀던 목소리에 귀를 닫았습니다 […] 매 맞는 것이 두려워 실종자 가족들을 만나지 않고 기사를 썼습니다. 매일 보도정보시스템에 업데이트 되는 세월호 관련 연락처 어디에도 유가족이나 실종자 가족과 관련된 연락처는 없었습니다. 그런데도 위에서는 “아이템들이 너무 실종자 입장으로 치우쳤다”며 전화를 하더군요[…]저는 KBS 뉴스에서 사고 수습 책임을 회피하는 ‘정부 수반’ 박 대통령에 대한 비판을 들어본 적이 없습니다. 박 대통령이 일반 조문객을 마치 유가족인 척 위로하는 청와대발 촌극은 언급조차 없었고요. 덕분에 요즘 취재 현장에서 KBS 기자는 ‘기레기 중 기레기'입니다. 얼마 전 한 후배가 세월호 관련해 시민 인터뷰를 시도하다 대여섯 명의 시민에게 “제대로 보도하세요. 왜 그따위로 방송해서 개병신(KBS) 소리를 들어요.”라는 말을 들었답니다. 청와대만 대변하려거든, 능력껏 청와대 대변인 자리 얻어서 나가서 하세요. 그 편이 오히려 솔직한 겁니다.

Right after we heard about the Sewol ferry sinking and landed in our plane, we went straight to Mokpo city instead of Paengmok port – Those journalists decided not to visit the scene. We wouldn't listen to the tears and cries of the victims’ families.


Afraid of being beaten [by their seniors], we wrote articles without actually meeting the missing peoples’ families. Although our [newsroom] database is being updated on a daily basis, contacts related to the victims’ families were no where to be seen. Yet still, the higher ups said “our news items are too in favor of the missing peoples’ families.”


I've never heard about KBS news reports criticizing President Park, the head of our government who refuses to take a full responsibility of this incident. That recent photo-op fiasco, where President Park had her photo taken consoling a victim's family at the funeral, but it was later found out the one in the photo with the president was just an ordinary funeral attendee, not the victim's family, our news never even briefly mentioned the fiasco. Thanks to all this, we KBS journalists at the scene are treated as if we are the worst “journalist trash”. [editor's note: A popular portmanteau in Korean, “기레기”, combines the words for journalist and trash.] One day, a junior journalist, while trying to interview a citizen, was told, “Do the right news reporting. Why do you keep reporting like this and earning yourself the nickname ‘complete idiot?’”

If you [the head of the KBS newsroom] wants to represent the presidential house only, then just try to get hired as the press secretary. That would be open at least.

Although their posts were quickly deleted, a considerable number of Korean web users hailed their courage to speak up. Some even boycotted the KBS subscription fee, which is about to be raised.

However, many doubted whether this would lead to any real change in the TV network's distorted news coverage.

This is a poster image calling for the resignation of KBS’ top news editor, its bureau chief and its chairman. Please spread this image and let people join the boycott of KBS’ subscription fee. Please retweet this message to everyone.

Those senior level newsroom people do know that they have been acting like journalist trash (although there is no saying if they will ever admit it), yet still it is just a relief that there are young journalists who dare to admit that they acted like human garbage and the fact that evil is evil.

I heard that junior level journalists have written apology letters. It made me wonder why it is always those junior level ones who have to apologize. All they did was parrot what they were told to say. 

When KBS journalists wrote that they apologize, the top news editor said that those journalists are “politically taking advantage” of the current situation. How can those who got their jobs “politically” use the term “political” in that context?

I heard that about 40 young KBS journalists have written apology letters. However, if this sort of dude stays as the head of the newsroom, I doubt anything will ever change. These are top news editor Kim Si-gon’s remarks: “[News show] hosts should not be wearing black” and “The number of Sewol disaster victims is not even greater than the number of annual car crash victims”.

The most junior level journalists issued apology letters for their news coverage, which earned them the nickname “journalist trash” at Pangmok port. Well, I really can't welcome this news at all. All they do is apologize. I am not saying that they should just shut up unless they have the guts to submit resignation letters. What I am saying is just please make real changes instead of merely apologizing and regretting.

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