Accountability of Epidemics Journalism

 이화여대 법학전문대학원

6기 박유미 (You Mi Park)


Every epidemic accompanies with it the expediencies of the journalists required to inform the citizens. What better time to get more viewers than dealing with health issues that no one is immune to? The recent MERS outbreak in South Korea is a prime example of a public that was taken in for fools when the virus was exaggerated on the media. Compared to common cold, the contagiousness of the disease was on par, if not less, and the lethality was still far less than more common place contagions such as hepatitis. However, the death count grabbed headlines day and night, and the reporters had their hayday, showing everything from contagious regions to hospitals and specific individuals. Sensationalism must have its limits, and the only sure limit can be set with the law.

The current law on journalism in Korea is dictated, at its foundation, by the Constitution Article 21, which states that while freedom of press is ensured, it may “not undermine public morals or social ethics”. Most of the Supreme Court cases surrounding violations of law in journalism pertain to adult restricted materials and those surrouding political criticisms with respect to the loosely worded National Security Act. While the courts were busy persecuting vigilantee journalists for political favors, they have failed to make room for the damages brought on by causing panic and paranoia among the populace. Schools closed down, and other public institutions were on hold for weeks. Fear drove citizens away from hospitals and simple allergic reactions became agonizing tests of endurance as people avoided hospitals.

The question of course is whether anything can be proven. With a murder, there is a body and scientific set of evidences, but the effects of yellow journalism are too widespread to pinpoint. It is precisely in these cases where a government should recognize the greater threat to the “social ethics” mentioned in the Consititution, and pass bills that may hold the press accountable for exccessive sensationalism in their reports. The ideal would have been a report of the first case of MERS in Seoul, the failure of containment, the official guidelines to avoid contact, the extent of the disease contagiousness, and the progress day by day. Instead, the press shows death counts, previous horror stories from abroad, and estimated number of persons infected with little emphasis on the fact that most who died were old and had immunodeficiency problems, stories from abroad were 5 years old, and the true contagiousness of the disease was not as bad as it was reported. Outlooks on harsher press accountability seems grim, however, since too many people benefit from an outbreak such as MERS. Governments such as Hong Kong and Taiwan may cut economic trade or travel guidelines may be restricted in the name of quarantine, but ulterior motives may be hidden. Even the South Korean government can benefit from the chaos by politicizing the reactiong to the disease and giving ample time to criticize the current government for its inefficiencies, instead of focusing on informing the public. Indeed, responsible journalism and the legal framework that enforces such a form of journalism may be the mark of more culturally advanced nations.


Constitution of the Republic of Korea (1988)

National Security Act of South Korea(1948)

Accountability of Epidemics Journalism”에 대한 1개의 생각

  1. 대중의 관심을 끌어야만 하는 것이 언론인지라 sensationalism을 버리기가 어려운 듯 합니다. 미국도 그런것 같구요. 저는 언론의 소비자들이 스스로 현명해질 필요가 있다는 생각입니다.


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