The Nieman Fellows meet South Korean journalists in a conference room on top of Seoul. Old linoleum floors, new microphones, and a view that strikes the eye: skyscrapers, flashing screens, roof decorations in glass and steel. A huge banner says, “Welcome Niemans!” in English, and in Korean, which to me, the German fellow, could be ancient Greek. After our flight halfway around the world, we’ve entered a world many of us have never been to before—Asia.
On our first day visiting Korea, our topic is online journalism. Soon we learn about Ohmy news, a journalistic Web site that recently scooped the leading national newspapers with stories like the one about some government officials using public money to pay for private amusements. One of the South Korean journalist explains: “The Ohmy news site is received as the only truly alternative source of news right now.” In Seoul, half of the homes have Internet access.
My body clock tells me it’s nighttime, time for bed, but my mind couldn’t be more awake. I did not expect any discussion at this morning meeting—or at any other meeting in Korea—on one of the more delicate issues in the country, the media and the government.
South Korea, long headed by a military government and its propaganda machine, had its first presidential election in 1987. Freedom of the press was introduced—but disassembling a settled media bureaucracy is never easy. Three big conservative newspapers control 70 percent of the newspaper sales. A week before we left Cambridge, The New York Times reported on a controversy with an odd twist: Current president Kim Dae-Jung, a former dissident and devoted liberal elected in 1997, was accused of stopping the major papers from criticizing him. Kim, the story noted, believes there is need for “media reform” and regards the old players as too powerful.
In this muggy conference room on top of Seoul, it seems as if some agree with the president. One of the Korean reporters says that “It is public opinion that Korean news do not have a truthful objectivity.” That is one reason why Ohmy news works well, with citizens acting as reporters. Ten thousand people contribute to this Web publication, while some 30 people edit the copy that comes in.
But this leaves me wondering how this Web site can publish articles without checking facts. Didn’t we talk during our Nieman year about the ways to maintain quality in online journalism? By a few days into our trip, I find myself realizing how differently we think about these issues in countries like the United States and Germany. In a place like South Korea, where freedom of expression and of the press has yet to become a protected reality, Ohmy news provides a perfect platform to say what cannot yet be said in the regular media. It seems like a signpost along the road to democracy, and people here have more important things to do than to create false news.
Later in our trip, we board a train to head east. Here we are, 10 Niemans from nine countries—including Nigeria, Bosnia, Chile and India—Curator Bob Giles, his wife, Nancy, and U.S.-South African novelist and Nieman writing instructor, Rose Moss. This journey had been arranged and is headed by Lee Dong-Kwan, our Nieman colleague. His aim is to try to bridge the cultural gaps between our backgrounds and his.
If Lee seems slightly nervous, he has every right to feel that way. Our delegation is two-thirds female, and in a traditional country like South Korea, that might be considered almost improper. “Interesting!” the deputy major of the ancient city of Kyungju calls it. “Oh, how unexpected!” says the chief of the Korean Information System. Another issue: Instinctively, we don’t like the popularity assigned to us. Wherever we go, we’re introduced as “extraordinary and world famous journalists,” in a tone that sounds a lot like: “May we proudly present: Madonna!” That we are expert in questioning authorities doesn’t seem to matter. Suddenly, we are treated as the officials whom we use to grill. Banners, newspapers, even the TV news talk about us. We receive gifts from politicians, CEO’s, even from President Kim. Can that be good?
To Lee’s relief we don’t revolt, but grab our nametags and do what we do best—observe. After all, we are here to experience the culture. If this treatment is part of it, let’s touch, smell and analyze it. Food and gifts are a social language, not just in South Korea, and since our group provides a unique window to many different nations, we are, of course, being pampered. We are served the king’s soup, the finest jellyfish, and little somethings in a bag—a wristwatch, a book. We smile, observe and begin to understand.
South Korea is a country of change. It is a traditional culture encountering globalization, an Asian Tiger still digesting the 1997 stock market crisis, and a product of the Cold War trying to open a dialogue with its communist brother in the North. It is a young democracy unraveling the strings of a totalitarian past. To me, it often feels like East Germany in the years after the wall came down, with its subtle chaos and strong contradictions. Along the roads, I see poor farmers, then some of the most sophisticated farming techniques in the global market. There are almost no women in powerful positions, but there are some courageous women performing “The Vagina Monologues” on stage in Seoul every night. It could be said that we survived a trip of clapping, business attire, and five official appointments a day. But I’d much rather say that for 10 days we changed from being reporters to being diplomats of our profession. We changed from practicing journalism to participating in the globalization of journalism. And South Korean officials endured us as well, this multi-cultural, outspoken group of men and women, as they sat through some never-ending interviews and were baffled by President Kim extending his time with us, stimulated by the nature of our group.
In the end, it was a journey that repeatedly pushed all of us beyond our own cultural, intellectual and emotional borders. And that was the beauty of it.
We were Niemans on the road, and though nobody quite understands what that means, it gives new dimensions to an old idea—to promote and elevate the standards of journalism. Today, that means global journalism.
Stefanie Friedhoff is a 2001 Nieman Fellow who is a science writer and correspondent for German newspapers and magazines. She is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.