Opening, Reform & Media Frenzies

There has been, as we noted on this blog last week, a frenzy of speculation on North Korean reform and opening, leading to a headline from yesterday claiming that North Korea has virtually ditched state planning. This news comes from RFA (which has its own particular concerns and standards) and has now been cycled into South Korean English language media. It will not unlikely pop up in some Western media outlets, also. Whatever the veracity of this latest and greatest claim about dramatic change - and there is good reason to be skeptical - it is clear that there has been a shift in media coverage of the DPRK. Why?

There are the usual issues that relate specifically to reportage on North Korea. The opacity and unwillingness to abide by western norms essentially mean all bets are off regarding what can be said about the North. The normal journalistic rules don't apply. Much of the rumor comes from South Korean media and outlets like RFA, who are more willing to quote unnamed sources, both official and otherwise, when constructing a story.

But it can also be in large part explained by the Competitor-Colleague concept put forward by Jeremy Tunstell in his pathbreaking 1971 book, Journalists at Work. In this paradigm, a particular journalistic specialist receives regular, usually daily, acts of competitive (and co-operative) behavior from other specialists in his or her field. Asia correspondants are few in number, and Korea correspondants are fewer still. Their interactions are frequent, with offices often in the same buildings or neighborhoods and foreign correspondants' clubs providing social and professional support.

When an idea sweeps through the professional group, and particularly when several experts in the social sciences are willing to support those ideas, it can be difficult for individual journalists to avoid reporting on a story. "If everybody else is doing it, I should be too." Institutional and social pressures provide too powerful a guiding hand.

These stories then get picked up by regional publications and given even more certain and ridiculous headlines by editors and writers who are not specialized in the area and are more interested in selling papers that working out nuanced caveats.

When a new narrative about  a "mysterious and unknowable place" like North Korea comes out it can quickly become the dominant construct through which any North Korea-related information is filtered. Especially, as Chris Green puts it, when it is "exactly what so many of us would really like to hear". So unlicensed (shock!) Disney characters are signs of opening with western culture. Ri Yong Ho's retirement was due to a battle over economic reform. And a single rumor in Yangangdo about an economics lecture becomes "state planning ditched".

We will probably see the "reform and opening" paradigm shape news stories on North Korea for many months to come.

Let's finish with a little more from Tunstall's assesment of how ideology constrains competitor-colleagues:

"The ideology of a particular competitor-colleague group appears to be carried forward in a largely oral tradition. It is probably all the more potent for not being written down. The group’s ideology cannot be easily challenged by outsiders. It also cannot easily be challenged by members of the competitor-colleague group. Indeed the group ideology –strongly influenced as it is by news organization goals, news sources, and by the previous careers of competitor-colleagues – is in its very nature likely to be well adapted to occupational realities and to the forms of pressure which are regularly exerted on group members. The group ideology is expressed in conventional wisdoms, some of which appear so obvious, or are so strongly held by a majority of members, that they are never challenged." (p. 270)