With the growth of the Internet and social media, the way news is both produced and consumed has changed rapidly in recent years.
Demand for traditional print and broadcast media is continually decreasing, with the knock-on effect that for many outlets, the financial resources required to maintain foreign bureaus, high-quality editorial staff and specialist journalists are all decreasing.
And with digital-only outlets increasingly reliant on click-based advertising systems to generate revenue, the incentive for journalists to pursue “viral friendly” stories is increasing, even among what would traditionally have been viewed as reputable media outlets.
Together – and especially when combined with the special characteristics of the North Korea reporting environment – it seems that in 2014 the majority of mainstream publications still seek sensation above fact-based reporting when it comes to covering North Korea.
However, the in-depth knowledge, modern technologies and micro-level approach of specialist North Korea information providers means that although readers need to exercise caution when it comes to their reading of news about North Korea, reliable services do exist that prioritize fact over fiction.
REPORTING ON THE DPRK: “RARE GLIMPSES”
On many levels, North Korea punches above its weight and the world of news is no exception.
A simple search for “North Korea news” on Google, for example, results in over 200 million results. A search for “Ivory Coast news” generates less than a quarter of that, though the CIA World Factbook estimates that it ranks just one position below North Korea in nominal GDP rankings.
Comparing the extreme difficulties of reporting within North Korea and the relatively open media environment of the Ivory Coast, the sharp difference in coverage is noteworthy.
Critical to understanding the high number of North Korea stories published every day is the general public’s disproportionately high interest in the country, when compared to other developing nations.
Indeed, Asia desk editors will confirm that North Korea stories are often among the most clicked-on in their portfolio, with wild tales from Kim Jong Un executing his ex-girlfriend to Jang Song Thaek’s execution by a pack of hungry dogs demonstrating the often viral nature of these stories.
Simultaneously, the public’s insatiable appetite to get to know the “real” North Korea exists to such an extent that even galleries of photos taken by tourists – repackaged by editors as “rare glimpses” – consistently create tidal waves of traffic with hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in corresponding advertisement revenue for the lucky publication.
Critical to understanding the high number of North Korea stories published every day is the general public’s disproportionately high interest in the country
And – playing off the fact that stories on the country are almost guaranteed to create clicks and revenue – some publications even willingly mislead readers into presenting testimony from unofficial pro-Pyongyang groups as the official view of the North Korean state, cognizant that the material will result in substantial coverage in other outlets.
In such an environment, the potential for sensational, wacky, or lurid stories about North Korea to gain significant page view traction has become immense.
Due to the public’s strong interest in and perceptions of what New Focus have described as an “otherworldly” country, there is therefore a natural motivation for editors to run sensational stories about North Korea, for they can result in significant page views, advertising revenues and occasional notoriety for the journalists involved.
As result of these “benefits,” many sensational articles about the DPRK in the mainstream media are based on little more than a single anonymous source, a fact that would normally present a red flag for journalists focusing on nearly any other country on earth.
Many sensational articles about the DPRK in the mainstream media are based on little more than a single anonymous source
But because sensational stories about North Korea do sometimes turn out to be true – and because more than enough documented brutality occurs within the DPRK – journalists and experts are drawn to paying extra attention to what might otherwise be viewed as outlandish or suspicious reports.
Journalist leads, no matter how outrageous, are therefore all too often endorsed by commentators eager to opine on the latest development in the DPRK, often adding momentum to stories that could otherwise be discredited with some careful background work.
Another contribution to sensationalism is that fact-checking on North Korea stories by mainstream press is often incorrectly considered impossible.
Indeed, only reporters or editors with substantive experience in focusing on the DPRK tend to know of the means to check stories or have the networks or language skills to do so, which – in an era of shrinking newsrooms – means tacit experience working with North Korea is increasingly rare to find in the mainstream press.
With the institutional awareness needed to verify stories simply not there, an anything-goes culture has emerged in which, by and large, normal editorial standards are judged not to apply when it comes to stories about North Korea in the mainstream press.
Further compounding the problem for those requiring a reliable stream of news on the DPRK is that perceptions of title quality do not necessarily conflate to improved accuracy.
Although the tabloid press is not known for championing quality editorial standards, well-regarded outlets can be found just as guilty in their distribution of dubious content on North Korea, often for the simple reason they’re able to cite another outlet as the primary source of the story.
By citing such a third-party source, editors can wash their hands of their responsibility, with plausible deniability granted by the caveat that comes with wording such as “sources say,” “it was reported,” or “S. Korean media said.”
And because the majority of mainstream journalists have a shallow understanding of the country, culture, and language, an echo chamber effect often results, propelling stories of dubious regard into the mainstream.
If another outlet has reported a sensational story, it has become acceptable – if not expected – for even respected titles to also follow suit
In cases of the most sensational stories, this correspondingly leads to extensive re-reporting and often extremely high surges in traffic for the publishing outlets. Because of this, if another outlet has reported a sensational story, it has become acceptable – if not expected – for even respected titles to also follow suit.
Perhaps the best example of this in recent history was the story – now thoroughly debunked – of how Kim Jong Un fed his naked uncle, Jang Song Thaek, to a pack of 120 hungry dogs in December 2013.
Emerging on Chinese social media site Tencent Weibo as a satirical joke the day Jang had been executed, the Hong Kong-based Wen Wei Po inexplicably republished the satirical posting as a legitimate news story.
Although it received little initial traction, when picked up again by Singapore’s Straits Times 12 days later, the story was suddenly republished by scores of mainstream outlets, all of which sourced the information back to the Straits Times and Wen Wei Po material with little, if any, additional research or fact-checking.
Due to the eagerness of outlets to publish as quickly as possible – and a lack of Chinese-language skills – it subsequently took days for anyone to realize that the source of the story had been nothing more than a joke. But the impact had been made, and despite a number of outlets making a point of debunking the rumor, the general public’s lasting impression was of Kim Jong Un executing his uncle in an extremely inhumane manner.
A significant breeding ground for sensationalist reporting on North Korea is the South Korean and Japanese newspaper industry
A significant breeding ground for sensationalist reporting on North Korea is the South Korean and Japanese newspaper industry, in which anonymous sources proliferate, where verification is minimal, and where there is little hesitation to publish even the most dramatic of claims.
As Columbia journalism school Ph.D candidate and former Korean journalist Soomin Seo explained to NK News recently, “Pack journalism is prevalent among South Korean and Japanese journalists covering North Korea. Because they would rather risk being wrong than not write about something at all, they often copy off each other even if they cannot verify stories independently.”
Of course, in such an environment there is nothing to prevent sources from wittingly misleading journalists, sometimes motivated to leak stories for ulterior motives.
And even those journalists with sources inside North Korea cannot be sure of the accuracy of the information being gathered, with DPRK authorities known to occasionally leak false rumors in order to stimulate headlines in the ROK.
When combined with the fact that Pyongyang rarely bothers to correct even the most outrageous of stories, a cycle of nonsense news erupting about North Korea will likely continue to perpetuate for many years to come.
Of course, any look at contributing factors to the ocean of sensationalist stories is not complete without also acknowledging the role that North Korea’s own official media plays.
While publishing a relatively significant number of original articles each day – many of which are dry, short accounts of meetings, leadership inspections, or foreign delegation visits – journalists from the mainstream press tend to scan DPRK state media for the most sensational of material: bombastic rhetoric, translation errors that result in absurdity, or photos depicting Kim Jong Un in situations of ridicule.
Granted, the DPRK has of late given more than enough fodder for journalists to run with, but in terms of the security environment it is often Western outlets that sensationalize North Korean threats the most.
As the following example shows, a sensational and selective response to official DPRK media threats regularly stimulates negative stereotypes of North Korea as a “mad” and “bad” actor, all of which will take significant time to erode.
CASE STUDY: FROM NK NEWS TO U.S. FEDERAL INTELLIGENCE
During a period of significant DPRK – ROK & U.S. tensions in Spring 2013, one particular article on Pyongyang’s almost daily threats was catapulted into the spotlight, receiving significant media attention throughout North America.
Providing an instructive example of the sensational and selective focus of mainstream re-reporting, the article and its consequent effects show some of the dangers of mainstream journalist’s coverage of North Korea – especially during times of perceived crisis.
On March 29, 2013, James Pearson, formerly of NK News, republished a DPRK state media photograph of Kim Jong Un signing off on “technical preparations of strategic rockets” to strike the U.S. mainland.
Pearson overlaid the photo – which included a map of DPRK missile targets across mainland America – with a Google map of the U.S. to identify to readers North Korea’s likely target cities. Above the composite map of the mainland targets, Pearson included the sentence:
“A composite overlay appears to show San Diego, Washington D.C., Hawaii and possibly Austin as being primary targets in a North Korean attack plan” (Emphasis added).
Further down in the article, Pearson added:
“Given that the photo will have primarily been intended for a domestic audience, it will most likely have already served its purpose of demonstrating North Korean military capabilities internally. Most analysts agree North Korea would not be able to hit any U.S. mainland targets.”
Despite the caveats that Austin was “possibly” targeted, that the photo had been published in the Rodong primarily for domestic audiences, and that most analysts agreed it would be nearly impossible for North Korean missiles to reach any U.S. mainland targets, within 24 hours mainstream media throughout the U.S. were in hysteria, citing NK News as the source of the heightened threat.
In particular, both journalists and the general public jumped on the “possible” inclusion of Austin, Texas, as a North Korean strike target. And despite all of the caveats in the original article, NK News was referenced as the source for scores of headlines on the topic, including:
- North Korean war map targets Texas (CNN)
- UN-HINGED: KIM TO BOMB DC, LA – AND AUSTIN (Drudge Report)
- #WhyAustin Twitter hashtag goes viral in response to North Korea’s U.S. target list (Austin Culture Map)
- Rick Perry: North Korean leaders understand importance of Austin (Washington Post)
- Mayor of Austin Prepared for North Korea Attack as U.S. Continues Show of Force
Common to almost all of the coverage was the omission of the NK News caveats on the potential targets.
Even respected outlets like CNN referred to Austin being a matter-of-fact target of potential North Korean ICBM strikes. And while many members of the general public reacted to the news with humor, the story did nevertheless lead to a statement from the Austin City mayor, who said his office had been in contact with both regional and federal intelligence agencies about the threat:
“The City has been in contact with federal officials through the Austin Regional Intelligence Center (ARIC) regarding the North Korean threat to Austin. Austin’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management department and the Austin Police Department are monitoring the situation, and though they take this very seriously, they do not believe the threats are credible at this time.” Statement, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell.
While the situation provides a lighthearted view of how rapidly things can scale from a single sentence on a specialist news site to viral national news of an imminent mainland missile threat, it also underscores the policy ramifications when such stories go viral – especially when misreported or distorted by mainstream media.
Indeed, that regional and federal intelligence authorities were called to provide assessments of threats against Austin, which were taken “seriously,” is illustrative of the blunt and sometimes direct link between mainstream media coverage and policy during times of heightened alert.
THE RISE OF SPECIALIST MEDIA
Despite the above-mentioned tendencies of mainstream media to prioritize sensationalism in reporting over factual news, an increasing number of specialist information sites dedicated to covering North Korea at the micro-level are well-equipped to report on the country from a principally factual basis.
A key benefit to those seeking to separate fact from fiction on North Korea is that content on sites like NK News, The Daily NK and 38 North are typically produced by teams or individuals with extensive institutional knowledge of covering the DPRK.
In addition – and as communications technologies continue to evolve – it is becoming increasingly possible for such sites to pursue evidence-based reporting and corroborate stories from multiple in-country sources.
In contrast to the anonymous sources that form the bulk of tip-offs within South Korea’s media, both NK News and 38 North have placed a premium on using satellite imagery, data, and photos or videos taken within the country to provide additional levels of corroboration to stories or analysis.
And while The Daily NK does not have a track record for evidencing news with satellite imagery or photography, since its inception it has made significant efforts to check and triple-check refugee testimony from other sources within the country. Largely, such efforts appear to have paid off, with little in the way of sensationalistic single-source material emerging on The Daily NK.
In the North Korea information ecosystem specialist providers benefit from their granular focus on the DPRK, with content typically read by an audience consisting primarily of professionals within the fields of government, academia, business, NGOs, and media.
Such a reader base means that specialist outlets are able to cover developments within the country from a perspective that does not normally attract the interest of mainstream readers, decreasing the need for contributors to pursue sensation over facts when writing news or analysis.
In addition, the professional reader base also allows specialist providers to provide sustained and detailed coverage that is of limited utility to mainstream media, spotlighting issues and developments that would have little or no significance to the general public. Together, more reliable news, information, and data are surfacing on North Korea than ever before.
While developments in specialist media are generally positive and momentum indicates further progress ahead, there are nevertheless problems unlikely to be resolved any time soon
In addition, it should be noted that news agencies such as Reuters, the AP, and AFP will continue to play a key role in brokering reliable news and information on North Korea.
With better capacities, resources, and tacit experience in covering the country than mainstream outlets, agency coverage has continued to improve, with developments like the AP’s in-country office a welcome – if underexploited – addition to the media landscape.
But while developments in specialist media are generally positive and momentum indicates further progress ahead, there are nevertheless problems unlikely to be resolved any time soon due to the specificities of the DPRK media environment.
For security reasons it is foreseeable that anonymous sources will continue to be a requirement in North Korea reporting for many years to come.
For those with approved in-country access, it appears that North Korea will be unwilling to provide the level of access required to conduct meaningful and genuine coverage of the country any time soon.
And for those sites such as NK News, The Daily NK and 38 North to continue improving, financial resources need to be correspondingly increased either through customers, grants, or donations, something that cannot be guaranteed.
OVERALL, SENSATIONALISM SELLS
Reliable news and information on North Korea is essential for policymakers, especially those working within the realm of security.
It is also no secret that intelligence agencies have extremely limited capacities in North Korea, further bolstering the need for high quality coverage of the DPRK. As such, it is imperative for professionals working on North Korea to keep in mind the environment in which news on the DPRK emerges.
For reasons already explained, there are ample motivations for journalists to spotlight questionable stories more than would be the case with other countries.
There is also little motivation for mainstream journalists to attempt to verify whether a story that feels wrong is accurate or not.
Indeed, mainstream journalists are unlikely to have the networks or understanding of the country to verify a story, even if they thought it prudent to do.
And there is little evidence of motivation to publish corrections on wild stories that do indeed turn out to be incorrect – or to learn from the error to improve reporting on North Korea for the future.
For outlets and agencies better equipped to report on North Korea from a factual basis, it is imperative that such outlets, journalists and specialists continue to be supported in their work.
In this regard, professionals working on the DPRK must understand the time and resources required to produce professional grade information.
While media has long been “free” for the end user, those professionals on the DPRK should consequently do their best to support specialized outlets as much as possible.
A variation of this paper was published at the University of Central Lancashire for its October conference on North Korea and international security.
Main picture: KCNA, edited by NK News
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