Tragic Yellow Journalism Over the Sewol Ferry Tragedy
I still vividly remember the moment I read the CNN breaking news that a ferry sank off the coast of South Korea. After reading it, I casually returned to what I was doing, assuming it was just another unfortunate accident which would soon be forgotten, because the news ended with a reassuring statement that “all the students and teachers (who were the majority of the passengers) on board were rescued.” Lamentably, this turned out to be one of the worst false reports imaginable. The actual death toll of the disaster was 295 and only 172 were rescued (an additional 9 individuals were not found). None of those rescued were as a result of government rescue operations.
The number of total passengers and the estimate of casualties that the local media reported kept fluctuating, which later turned out to be a consequence of their echoing the inaccurate government announcement before making any effort to check the facts themselves. Especially, KBS, which is the designated central disaster broadcaster of Korea, released a provocative headline stating that “Number of bodies found tangled within the vessel” which was immediately rebutted by the coast guards who had only started their rescue mission at that time. Even after quite a while, all the people hoping for the passengers’ safe return, not to mention the families, suffered from additional false reports about the progress of the rescue missions, mixed with empty hope and rash despair.
False reports caused by competition for exclusive breaking news were not the only sin that the media had made over the ferry disaster. The disaster created pandemonium by demonstrating how sensationalistic and vulgar the media could become by taking others’ tragedy as their opportunity.
The MBC, another Korean public broadcasting system, which actually was the originator of the false report that all the students were rescued, covered the expected amount of the insurance (including the death benefit) to-be-paid to the family on the very day of the accident. And none of the press was exempted from consistently picturing how emotional the families in the port were, probing them with hurtful, so-called “interview” questions.
Another problem demonstrated by the news agencies was pro-governmental bias. Three major Korean news channels handled the president’s visit to the family shelter as an important story, applauding her leadership, but omitting the families’ appeal to her about the sluggish rescue. They called the rescue mission the greatest in history, releasing headlines as “All three forces, from the land, the sea and the air, are combined (KBS)”, “23 vessels and 1000 troops are dedicated to the effort (MBC)”, “Every bit of manpower and necessary equipment is mobilized (SBS)”. However, we now know that the actual number of divers in operation on the day of the rescue was only 16, and no passenger was rescued from the “greatest mission in history”. Meanwhile, the voice to reveal what caused the accident that had taken so many lives was muted, the effort to expose the reasons for the failure of the rescue mission was considered a conspiracy, and the families’ rightful appeals were condemned as political acts.
More than three years have passed since the disaster, but there is no improvement of the conduct of news agencies that deal with the series of events regarding the Sewol Ferry tragedy. The families have been suffering from maliciously misleading reports on their effort to pass the Sewol Special Act, which mainly requested an outside investigation (as a result, now the investigation committee is on its mission without any legal authority to request necessary data for their investigation). The parliamentary inspection of the issue received less coverage than the personal affairs of a victim’s parent who was alleged to be anti-government. I do not think the victims’ families of Sewol Ferry are the only people suffering from the media’s sensationalism and biased reports even on a life-and-death matter like this. Other than appealing to a few currently existing media with a conscience, what would you resort to if you were the next victim? I hope you will share your wisdom that keeps you awake at night, if you have been fighting against forces that interfere with your right-to-be informed.