South Korean journalists reporting tirade breach off-the-record tradition

August 10, 2016
South Korean national flags fly outside the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul

It was a night of racism and class snobbery at a private dinner between journalists and a top education policy maker. After one too many drinks in Seoul’s government district, an elite bureaucrat, Na Hyang-wook, lambasted “99 percent” of his countrymen for being “like dogs and pigs” who only need to be fed and kept alive, compared them to “blacks and Hispanics in the United States who don’t even try to enter politics or climb the social ladder,” and called for a caste system on the basis that “people are not all born equal.”

His personal goal, he told the journalists, was to strive to be in the 1 percent. He offered limited sympathy for the death of a 19-year-old subway contract laborer overworked and crushed by an oncoming train, as noted in recent stories about poor conditions for part-time workers. The journalists said that they felt pain for him like he was their own child, but the bureaucrat retorted that while his death was certainly tragic, it would have been silly to pretend the subway worker was his own kid.

That evening, July 7, was odd even by South Korean standards, and stretched journalism ethics to the max. The biggest problem was that no sensible official would have confided in the two reporters on the other end of the table. The pair was Chang Eun-gyo and Song Hyun-sook, from the left-wing Kyunghyang newspaper, a sort of Nation in South Korea known for its fiery anti-establishment reporting.

Chang, 36, the editor in charge at the meeting, has built a career as a firebrand reporter challenging the status quo, with aggressive reporting on wealth inequality and labor issues. In 2009, she was part of a team that won a sort of local Pulitzer, the Korean Journalists’ Award, for covering poor standards for contract workers–similar to the dead subway laborer. She has stated that her mission as a reporter is to represent the voices of the underprivileged, placing her in opposition to the middle-of-the-road standard of journalism accepted in the West.

After the government official launched his salvo, the reporters pulled out a phone recorder, informed him that the meeting was on the record, and gave him many chances to rescind or clarify his statements, Chang told CJR. She noted there was never an explicit off-the-record agreement. Any expectation of “off the record” was an unspoken understanding common in South Korea. Intimate gatherings like these are a regularity between top officials and the journalists who cover them, intended to build relationships. Off-the-record is an expectation, but unlike in the US, it’s usually not stated outright. In South Korea, it’s often the only way of getting information.

Despite this, and the journalists’ promise to quote him, the civil servant Na pushed on with his tirade. (Na has never disputed these claims, but has said that his comments were the result of drunkenness.)

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The reporters left the meeting in disgust, but government officials asked them to return for a clarification, where the official repeated himself on softer terms: “The United States has a such-and-such class society, and wouldn’t it be okay to take a similar path?” he said, according to the newspaper. The next day, Kyunghyang held a newsroom meeting to discuss the ethics of publication and whether it had news value. Was this any old drunken rant, or something worth pursuing?

Consider this: At South Korea’s biggest newspapers, along with many East Asian publications, self-censorship and anonymous sourcing are the status quo. Japanese and Korean reporters are often sorted out into press clubs, tied to ministries and corporations, which lay down the rules and whack reporters whose coverage is out of line. With power concentrated in a handful of corporate conglomerates, many newspapers cater to advertisers in a way far more extreme than in the US, and dole out bad coverage to companies that don’t pay up. When the options for covering your country–or its corporations–are all weak, journalistic short-cuts can be the only way to publishing honest stories.

After a long back-and-forth, the editors agreed to go with it. This was not a mid-level bureaucrat spouting inebriated nonsense, but a top official whose mandate was to craft policy that would educate the next generation. Since he expressed a sentiment so recklessly against his public mission–and given plenty of opportunities for a retraction with his spokesman present–the story had reached an ethical threshold. The decision was a careful one, and weighed the values of the journalists at stake. “I am always haunted by a fear about whether what I’m doing is the right thing. Responsibility is a prerequisite,” Chang once told the website “jobdastory.”

After publication, the Prime Minister apologized; the civil servant, whose record was otherwise impeccable, was fired. The debacle weighed on the national mood, with younger South Koreans resentful over wealth inequality and calling their country “Hell Korea.”

Journalists in the US would frown on publishing any off-record comment. The Associated Press ethics handbook says that “off the record” simply means “the information cannot be used for publication.” The New York Times’s former public editor Margaret Sullivan has said the newspaper “was and is obligated” to honor off-the-record agreements with presidential candidates. Whether “off the record” means not for attribution, or not publishable at all, has been a longstanding debate. But it always means the source should be able to trust the reporter to be discreet.

Off-the-record meetings have their uses. Since not everyone is in a position to talk to the press, sometimes it’s the best, even if an imperfect, channel for opening a trail to better information–which could lead to scoops or insights later. Dishonor your agreement, and not only will sources avoid you, but other journalists could have a harder time getting access because of you.

Sometimes, in very limited circumstances, it should be okay to rethink this rule. Reporters around the world often don’t enjoy the same level of access and documentation that Americans and Western Europeans do, and this makes the job of the journalist infinitely harder. Kyunghyang’s decision to publish offered rare insight: A top official was being straightforward, and his statements were going down on the record with–remarkably–his name attached. Just the fact he was this candid was a big deal, whether or not his views were abhorrent.

Sometimes, pushing the ethical boundaries is the only way, ironically, to write honest stories.

For a high-tech republic, South Korea is remarkably opaque. The Economist Intelligence Unit calls the country a “flawed democracy,” and Freedom House calls its press “partly free.” Mainstream journalism here is largely a scripted affair, more a cartel and less a watchdog. Since trust in journalists here is already low–a trendy phrase, kiraegi, means “journalist trash”–candid footage or on-record commentary is hard to find. The South Korean president gave her first press conference 10 months after taking office, and her administration has since gone after reporters who question the official line. Government spokespeople demand anonymity even at public briefings. Defamation lawsuits and legal threats, even for satire, are common. Unlike in the US, where the spirit of defamation laws is to protect free speech, South Korea (and much of East Asia) gives more weight to protecting a person’s public honor against true and newsworthy statements.

National leaders, as such, are praised to great heights. More than 70 years after the end of World War II, Japan’s mainstream newspapers still treat it as taboo to talk about whether the deceased former emperor played an active role in the conflict. (Imagine if FDR’s presidency were still touchy for the New York Times.) South Korean media, meanwhile, hold back from challenging powerful corporate dynasties, many of whom, including the Samsung Chairman, have been convicted of white-collar crimes and then presidentially pardoned. Imagine how odd it would be if Steve Jobs were a two-time convicted criminal, pardoned twice by Bill Clinton and then Obama–and Walter Isaacson brushed over this in his biography.

Since the official narrative is overpowering, the counter-narrative is equally vicious. Conspiracy theories and rumors roar through non-mainstream and social media, laden with anonymous sources and bullying, at times sounding like Donald Trump writing a textbook for first graders. “According to a source in the finance industry, Jews have a robust network demonstrating influence in a number of domains,” opined the business publication MoneyToday last year.

The periodical was attacking a New York-based hedge fund, Elliott Management, for its shareholder challenge against Samsung, the nation’s crown jewel, last summer. Months later, the opposite happened. In July, the independent news website NewsTapa released a prostitution video, which was secretly filmed and used in a blackmail attempt, of what reporters believed was the Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee meeting up to five women at two residences and handing out payments of about $4,500 each–with some evidence of the connivance of an executive.

The wealthiest man in the nation, feted as an emperor, was intimately on display as hardly a god at all. Yet despite legitimate questions over company involvement, and a probe by prosecutors for prostitution, mainstream outlets portrayed him foremost as a victim of a voyeur camera and journalistic malpractice.

Problems like these are not the outlier, but are alarmingly common. And it presents a dichotomy: as a Korean journalist, the system doesn’t allow for much of a middle ground between mouthpiece and conspiracy monger. Follow the strictures of the cartel, and you are almost guaranteed to be pushing an official line, at times recklessly against interests of your readers. But expose the inner workings of the system, and you’ll have to behave in a way that would raise the eyebrows of any American ombudsman.

Sometimes, pushing the ethical boundaries is the only way, ironically, to write honest stories. The fact that an elite civil servant felt comfortable getting inebriated with journalists and spewing racial obscenities suggests a media environment where readers aren’t the first priority. Clearly, he anticipated the comforts of an off-record media relationship far removed from the original purpose and principles of off-the-record agreements aimed at delivering facts and context to readers without putting sources at risk. That, along with the overall press environment of restriction, supports the decision to publish.

Globally, there haven’t been many cases as extreme involving off-the-record comments becoming public. But when it happens, it’s because there was some sort strong public interest. In 2005, Australian media revolted against a senator, Ross Lightfoot, whose off-record tale about delivering $20,000 in cash to Kurdish officials in Iraq as part of a donation for a hospital–on behalf of an oil company–contradicted his claims later to the public. The Australian, in response, decided to abandon its agreement.

Keeping the secret would have ceded far too much editorial control to a man abusing the privilege. Imagine an Obama administration official abruptly contradicting himself on a public-interest matter, or spewing racial hatred off-the-record. Would the American press have stayed quiet?

The Kyunghyang editor who broke the story, Chang, has been navigating a far more restrictive environment since she first joined the paper in 2005. The Kyunghyang is at times a fixture of the media cartel, flexing its muscles when necessary, but it’s also an outlier from the “big three” lineup of mainstream newspapers. Its heritage is in the nation’s pro-democracy movements; the newspaper was set up by the Catholic Church in the 1940s and challenged authoritarian governments until the 1980s.

Kyunghyang has not always been a hero. In the past, its coverage has gotten out of control in support of protest movements, with emotional anti-American and xenophobic denunciations. Today, it is similar to the Nation in tone, but closer to the political center by American standards. (Disclosure: Last year, I wrote a handful of op-eds for the Kyunghyang, but have no relationship with them at present.)

Our relationship with the people we cover sometimes needs an element of hostility and antagonism.

Whether or not she made the right call, Chang’s case is reminder that off-the-record is a privilege granted by the journalist, not a vow of silence set down by a government official. The job of the reporter is to question it and resist it as much as possible–perhaps even revisiting the agreement when the public interest calls for it. Our relationship with the people we cover sometimes needs an element of hostility and antagonism; sometimes, they need us as much as we need them, and it can be more ethical to burn our access than to bow too hastily to the terms dictated to us.

Max Kim contributed reporting.

Geoffrey Cain , a Seoul-based journalist, will publish a book about South Korea in May 2017 from Crown.