SEOUL, South Korea – On the surface, South Korea’s media appears to be thriving and even serves as an example to a region where liberal democracy is the exception rather than the norm. The country’s peaceful transition to democracy in the late 1980s promised journalists a newfound freedom to report without fear or favor.
But reporting without fear or favor doesn’t necessarily mean reporting accurately or truthfully. Much of Korea’s mainstream media culture is built on an intricate web of connections between the outlets, the government and big companies from the top down. Because of a combination of unique historical and cultural factors, producing news in this environment boils down to access to the elites and how to get it, and how to get the subjects of stories to pay either to keep their names in print or out of it.
The Korean media’s closest cousin is Japan, with the drawbacks of Japan’s system. It came into being in the 1920s during Japan’s colonial rule and was largely modeled after the Japanese newspaper system. One feature born of this history overwhelmingly shapes how journalism is produced to this day: a culture of journalist beats, or chulib cheo, revolving around exclusive press clubs. Each government ministry and chaebol typically has its own press club that serves as its sole official source of information.
Only members, typically journalists from the most powerful media, get access inside. These exclusive groups of journalists decide which other media organizations can join – and which can be kicked out. As a cub reporter with Gyeonggi Province-based TV network OBS, Heo Eun-sun was tasked with winning access to the Ministry of Education for her employer. To prove she was a “good girl,” as she put it, not out to challenge the established order, Heo had to demurely accept invitations to eat and drink with her seniors.
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