Keeping the Promise: Lessons from the Sewol Ferry Disaster

It's been three years since the Sewol ferry sunk off the coast of South Korea, leaving nearly 300 dead. As Koreans continue to struggle to comprehend this tragedy, Korean journalists are reckoning with the consequences of their own failings. Chong-ae Lee reports on lessons learned and a new tool available for journalists bearing witness to trauma.

After the Sewol ferry disaster in April 2014 and after journalists learned the hard way how disaster reporting in the age of the media big bang could go so very wrong, media companies and individual reporters, feeling great shame, reflect on what happened. But very quickly, we realized this wasn’t just an individual issue but a broader issue: a consensus issue.

The questions raised were quite basic: Why does the media cover disasters? What should they be focusing on? What should they compete for? What should be off-limits? Expectations of disaster reporting are changing. They are becoming more complex and more sensitive. Disaster reporting is entering a paradigm shift.

For the first time in Korea, following the Sewol ferry disaster, there is significant interest in psychological trauma. There is interest in the psychological trauma of the victims, survivors as well as family members. Journalists that worked carelessly were heavily criticized. It was also the first time that newsrooms recommended that journalists who covered the Sewol ferry disaster should seek counseling and some companies even offered to pay for it.

The Korea Broadcasting Journalist Association (KBJA), founded in 2008, is comprised of 58 media companies as well as terrestrial and cable broadcasting journalists. It is the first organization in Korea to recognize the importance of focusing on trauma of disaster reporting.

KBJA has focused on disaster reporting since 2011, when the great East Japan earthquake and tsunami occurred and some Korean broadcast journalists that covered the incident were exposed to radiation. But at that time the focus was more on preparing a safety advisory. However, after the Sewol ferry disaster, KBJA’s interest in disaster reporting broadened. They brought together journalists to talk about what went wrong. They organized a team that reviewed the first three months of coverage by major broadcasting networks (KBS, MBC, SBS, YTN), documented the problems and ways to make improvements. This project turned into a book, including a chapter on psychological trauma and disaster reporting. KBJA also collaborated with the Korean Association for Broadcasting & Telecommunication Studies on a seminar titled, “Disaster Reporting and Psychological Trauma” to raise awareness on issues of trauma among university professors in the media field.

In addition, in June 2015 KBJA held a gathering with some family members of those who died in the Sewol ferry disaster and reporters who covered the disaster. As both an SBS journalist, a Dart Asia Fellow and an advisory member of the KBJA Disaster Reporting Research Subcomittee of the Special Committee on Journalism, I was in charge of the gathering. I consulted Dr. Cait McMahon, a psychologist and Managing Director of the Dart Centre Asia Pacific, a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York on how the families should be approached, how they should be informed about the project, questions to ask, the ideal setting, how long it should take, permissions around filming, and how the information should be shared with families and reporters afterwards.

The gathering was almost three hours. 15 journalists and three family members were seated so they could all see one another. Some of the journalists began to cry when introducing themselves and talking about why they had wanted to participate. The atmosphere was heavy but everyone was sincere and the experiences they shared were valuable.

After the gathering, Yoo Gyoung-geun, the father of Yoo Ye-eun, a Sewol victim Danwon High School student who is also the Head of the Executive Committee of the 4/16 Sewol Families for Truth and a Safer Society said, “This was the first time that the families had a chance to just meet and talk with the journalists”. Park Bona the older sister of Sewol victim and Danwon high school student Park Seong-ho told me after the gathering that she never thought about what the journalists had gone through and, for the first time, had an understanding of their experience.

KBJA also invited Dr. McMahon to Korea to organize a Dart workshop on trauma and journalism. In addition, KBJA organized a trip to New Orleans for a group of journalists interested in disaster reporting to learn about the coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

The efforts by KBJA to teach journalists how to report ethically and effectively on trauma and disaster resulted in a 20-minute educational video, the first of its kind produced in Korea. This video is based on the Sewol ferry disaster case. The testimonies by family members at the gathering and the experiences shared by reporters are at the center of the story.

It took nearly a year from the planning stage of the video to complete it. Several Dart Asia fellows including LEE Seung-young and PARK Dong-Hyuck and I volunteered our time to make this happen. 

It was difficult because we wanted to raise the issue of more ethical, sensitive reporting but didn’t want to harm survivors or their families again. We also didn’t want it to be perceived that we were criticizing journalists who simply didn’t know how to do their jobs differently or, knowing something wasn’t right, still needed to follow the orders from their bosses so just did as they were told.

We interviewed Korean trauma experts and got advice, in particular to ensure the dramatized scenes were properly done. 

KBJA is planning to send this video to every media company in Korea. Every journalist who will be trained by KBJA this year will see this material. It is just a start for the Korean media to become aware of the concept of psychological trauma and how to be more considerate journalists.

Just as it has taken almost three years to bring the Sewol ferry up, a process that is still ongoing, we journalists are also still in the process of learning from our mistakes. The father who attended the gathering asked that we use this incident as a spring board for change within the media, so they all could tell their children later on that at least some good resulted from their deaths.

This video of how broadcast journalists should treat victims and families at the scene of a disaster is just the beginning of an endeavor to raise awareness of the responsibility of journalists when reporting on trauma. We still have a long way to go, but we hope it shows that we are trying to keep the promise we made to these families. We also hope this video will help not only Korean journalists but journalists all over the world who will be encountering disasters and are seeking advice from those who experienced it first.