Last year, students at Pusan National University treated campus cleaning and security staff to a meal and some live music, in an event titled “We’re happy because of your effort.” Local newspaper Busan Ilbo was on the scene, and quoted someone from the university as saying, “We hope the event contributes to a culture of expressing gratitude for the labor and care of the members of the school.”
The person who made that warm-hearted comment did so on condition of anonymity. It’s not quite clear why; as is often the case, it is possible that the reporter opted not to ask his or her name. In any event, readers were left to wonder who this unnamed person was, and why he or she was not identified.
In South Korean journalism, anonymity is the norm rather than the exception. For foreign reporters, when working in South Korea, often the most contentious question of an interview comes at the end. The exchange will often go something like, “Ok, thank you for speaking with me. I’ll contact you again if I have any more questions. Can I ask your name?”
“Um, can’t you just attribute the quote to our organization?”
“It would be better to have your name.”
It’s against the organization’s rules to have anyone’s name published, the source will often explain — particularly if he or she works for the government or chaebol, massive family-owned conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai.
In many countries, unnamed sources are a journalistic exception, meant to protect providers of juicy or dangerous information from suffering personal or professional harm. ‘Deep Throat,’ the infamous Watergate whistleblower during the Nixon administration, remained anonymous for decades, up until 2005. Some North Korean defectors remain anonymous because their relatives in North Korea can be threatened by the publicity. The protection of namelessness is generally not extended to someone involved in a topic as benign as providing a free meal to hardworking old folks, like in the story about Pusan National University.
Often in South Korean journalism, a large portion of the information is attributed to gwangyeja, a shadowy figure somehow tied to the issue. Gwangyeja is a word with Chinese origins that literally means ‘a related person.’ Often, who they are and the nature of that relation is not explained in the article.
Gwangyeja are a mixed bunch, with varying distinctions and levels of seniority. Government sources can be described with a few modifiers indicating their level in organizational hierarchy. Business articles will sometimes have analysis attributed to an industry gwangyeja. Readers also find various unnamed experts proffering opinions on condition of anonymity.
The social repercussions of concealing the original source at a “We’re happy” event at a university aren’t great. But the habitual lack of transparency and accountability can be dangerous, even disastrous, when applied to the more significant news stories.
During the Sewol ferry sinking in April 2014, the South Korean Coast Guard was attempting to explain the botched rescue response to the public. The organization’s official stance was often communicated to the media through an unknown gwangyeja. The Coast Guard was formally disbanded as a rebuke for its mishandling of the sinking.
The National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s main spy agency, routinely releases information without a clear original source: Lawmakers would cite an unnamed NIS gwangyeja to release important information about national security and developments in North Korea.
The custom of vague attribution extends outside media.
In 2015, South Korea had the largest epidemic of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outside of Saudi Arabia. During the initial weeks of the outbreak, the South Korean government declined to release the names of hospitals where MERS cases had been reported, saying that keeping the hospitals a secret would prevent chaos. In a way, the anonymity created more chaos; rumors abounded and unwarranted fear spread. Eventually, succumbing to public pressure, the government disclosed the names.
Anonymity is directly related to accountability. Widespread anonymous sourcing raises questions about the reliability of journalism in the country. South Koreans had the lowest trust in their media, ranking at the very bottom among 36 countries (even below countries with more limited press freedom like Malaysia), according to a 2017 study jointly conducted by the Korea Press Foundation and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
To be clear, questionable use of anonymous sources is not unique to South Korean media. In the U.S., for example, last year Politico granted a senior Obama administration official anonymity to say of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “Seriously, with his looks, heart, and mind, he’s dreamy.” Not exactly whistleblower material.
A lot of sports reporting — the behind-the scenes minutiae of which player might sign with which team or what trades might be made — runs almost entirely on unnamed sources, usually assumed to be player agents and front office staff. Last year the San Jose Mercury News gave an NBA player a platform to anonymously insult one of his opponents, calling him not “smart enough” to play in the league finals.
On the more serious side of things, in 2015, a Rolling Stone magazine story about an alleged rape on a university campus used pseudonyms instead of tracking down the people involved. Rolling Stone eventually retracted the story when police and other investigators were unable to turn up any evidence that the purported events had taken place.
Nowadays, the New York Times and Washington Post are in brisk competition for scoops related to the Trump White House, and have little choice but to utilize unnamed sources in their reporting.
New York Magazine ran a nuanced defense of the role of unnamed sources, explaining that anonymity not only makes the reporter’s job easier, in many cases, it makes the job possible. “Anonymous sources could be graphed on a bell curve running from dime-dropping scumbags to heroes, with the vast majority…somewhere in the big, fat middle,” wrote journalist Kurt Andersen. He argued that a potential way forward is to use unnamed sources only with a detailed explanation of their motivations for talking to the press, while keeping their identity secret.
“Anonymous sourcing is an ethically neutral tool that’s only as good as the people using it,” Andersen quoted David Carr, a late New York Times writer.
South Korean defenders of the media’s anonymous sourcing often point to the country’s history of authoritarian rule. After all, for a long time, up until the late 1980s, this was a country where press coverage critical of the government could land a reporter in jail. Sources didn’t want to go on the record, because they didn’t want to face punishment — which, depending on the opinion, could range from a mild warning to torture.
It is also useful to understand the practice within the context of the South Korean judicial system, which generally does not publicly identify people by name.
“Seoul High Court has pointed out that it is possible to inform the public about crimes without identifying the people involved. It is the task of the media to objectively report on the phenomenon of crimes, not to denounce the people implicated,” wrote Park Jae-seon, a lawyer and member of the Press Arbitration Committee.
At the same time, Shim Seok-tae, a professor at Sogang University and director of New Media for SBS, questioned the wisdom of this practice, writing, “The presumption of innocence is meant to protect citizens from the power of the state, not from media and public interest.”
South Korea has strict defamation laws that differ from many western countries in one crucial facet: Plaintiffs do not need to prove that a reported fact was false, only that it had a demonstrably negative effect on their reputation. Even in Britain, known for its strict libel laws, proving the truth of the statement can be a defense against defamation suits; in South Korea, making a true statement can still be prosecuted if it is deemed to have been for the purpose of defamation and not in the interest of the public.
South Korean media outlets therefore do need to be careful about whom they name or shame.
Shin Chang-ho, a reporter at the Kukmin Ilbo newspaper, authored an article titled, “The Necessity and Problem With Unnamed Sources,” published in Gwanhun Journal, one of the most prominent and long-running publications on journalism in South Korea. Shin’s article breaks down a few cases where, he argues, use of unnamed sources is perhaps not desirable but not harmful.
One such case is to protect whistleblowers, leakers of information with public interest value who are risking negative repercussions to draw attention to some kind of injustice. Let’s all agree on that one.
Shin also writes in favor of the practice whereby government officials who provide briefings are anonymous, on the grounds that they are not providing their personal take on a matter, but rather communicating the government’s official position. Shin argues that messages conveyed in this way come across as a united stance and are therefore far more powerful than messages attributed to a single person.
This analysis doesn’t account for the reality that, when speaking on the record, a government official is already conveying the position of the government, not their personal view. Also, Shin doesn’t factor in the value of accountability when a name is put to represent an official government position.
The practice of anonymous sourcing in South Korea is not without domestic critics. 80.5 percent of respondents in a poll by the Korea Press Foundation said unnamed sources are used too much. Lawyer Song Young-hoon recently said on Twitter that referring to government officials using a graduated system of gwangyeja was a “terrible custom” by South Korean media, pointing out that in the U.S. or France, government officials who provide briefings are identified by name.
South Korean reporters, like journalists everywhere, often commiserate over the myriad problems in their industry; but like reporters elsewhere, they feel mostly powerless to institute substantive changes. Kim Do-yeon, a professor of media studies at Kookmin University, said that in South Korean newsrooms there is a general consensus on the desirability of reducing use of unnamed sources, but Kim is not aware of any concrete change taking shape. “Reducing use of unnamed sources is a matter of reporters working directly with desk editors and changing the general culture of media,” Kim told Korea Exposé.
Perhaps it is unfair to expect a democracy as young as South Korea’s to maintain top-notch standards of transparency — standards that aren’t always enforced in older democracies. South Korean hardware has advanced quickly in the past few decades; the country boasts one of the world’s most vibrant economies and identifies itself as a “developed nation.” But culture takes longer to progress. Old customs die hard.
Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen is one of the sharpest observers of post-authoritarian societies’ struggles to adopt global standards of civic and political rights. While South Korea’s twentieth century experiences are not comparable with those of the former Soviet Union (Gessen’s usual subject), she poses one question critics of South Korean media might want to ponder.
In an interview with Slate, Gessen said, “You can’t expect a society that has been subjected to terror for decades to suddenly shake that experience off and develop an entirely new set of skills and a new kind of baseline trust and live as a happy democracy, right?”
Cover image: The perennial question of anonymity. (Source: John Voo via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)