The Sewol sinking received considerable attention in the international media, but did all the outlets get the facts right?
The Sewol sinking garnered extensive media coverage around the world. Eventually, as with coverage in Korea, it shifted from focusing on the incident itself to stories about Yoo Byung-eun. But unlike the Korean media, the media in the West did not correct coverage that had initially been inaccurate, because their reporters had moved on.
NY Times Front pages
The sinking of the Sewol ferry and the subsequent “manhunt” for Byung-eun Yoo were front-and-center in Western media in the spring and summer of 2014. The Sewol coverage demonstrates inherent flaws and blind spots that are evident when Western news organizations cover stories abroad. The coverage also shows how foreign breaking news stories tend to be “hit-and-runs” where the reporters quickly move on to new stories or countries. This happens even as new information comes to light, as mistakes in the local media are corrected, or as initial misunderstandings are cleared up. These errors and falsehoods are thus left to stand.
The World Watches
The Western news organization that devoted the most coverage to the Sewol sinking and its aftermath appears to have been The Wall Street Journal. The publication ran 222 stories about the Sewol, with 20 of them mentioning Yoo Byung-eun. The New York Times, by comparison, ran 128 stories on the Sewol, with 16 focusing on Mr. Yoo.
When the Sewol began to list while transiting the Maenggol Channel, the Journal launched wall-to-wall coverage. In addition to the inherent drama of the tragedy, the attention was driven by Korea’s emergence as an economic powerhouse in recent years, and the subsequent interest within the country in the international business community — the Journal’s main audience.
The first stories appearing in the United States on April 15 featured fast-updating blog posts. By April 17, while many stories focused on the emotional toll of the accident, others already sought to assign blame. The Journal covered the Coast Guard’s failure in a story entitled “Uproar Online After Reports Allege Ferry Rescue Inaction.” Anger at the government soon took center stage.
Mr. Yoo first appears in the Journal’s coverage on April 28. By mid-May he is the main focus of the coverage. Not long after, the Sewol story fades from attention, but it comes roaring back in July when Mr. Yoo’s body is identified.
The Journal was relatively responsible in the way they wrote about Mr. Yoo’s death, never mentioning, as others did, the possibility of suicide – the cause of death has never been determined — noting that no alcohol was found in his system, and making a relatively brief attempt to tell the longer tale of his life.
That said, there are still misrepresentations and manipulative word choices in the Journal’s coverage. Why write that Mr. Yoo wore “a luxury Italian jacket” in death unless you are trying to give the reader a certain pejorative impression?
Of the 128 stories that appeared in The New York Times devoted to the Sewol sinking and follow-ups, 16 focused on Mr. Yoo and the Evangelical Baptist Church. Of the 124 stories on the NBC News website, 19 focused on Mr. Yoo and the church.
The Los Angeles Times wrote about the sinking 68 times, with two articles focused on Mr. Yoo, while The Guardian weighed in on the sinking 243 times.
The Washington Post devoted 36 stories to the disaster, and 25 “galleries” – selections of photos.
The less often an organization covered the story, the less thematic coherence existed in its coverage. All these organizations aggressively covered the sinking but after that, they tended to dip into the topic only when a major development or pivot in the Korean coverage occurred.
The New York Times put the story on the front page four times. Even though the vast majority of readers get their news online these days, front page placement in print newspapers remains an accurate way to gauge the editors’ interest. The first A1 Sewol story occurred a day after the first stories appeared, and recounts the fading hope for survivors and the growing focus on human error. The next two stories further dissect the errors in the rescue attempts, and recreate the horror as the ship sank.
News organizations that devoted less space to the story and didn’t cover it on a continuous basis as did The Wall Street Journal tended to sand down the edges of the story more. A British Broadcasting Company Story of May 26, 2014 erroneously calls Mr. Yoo the “ferry owner;” highlights a $500,000 reward offered by the Park administration for Mr. Yoo’s capture; inaccurately describes the Evangelical Baptist Church as a “religious sect;” and recounts unfounded allegations against Mr. Yoo related to a 1987 group suicide and ties them directly to the sinking of the Sewol, even though no such ties exist.
Indeed, for all the coverage in the past, it appears that no major global news organization reported the findings of the Committee on Social Disasters Commission, which found that, eight years after the sinking, the cause remains a mystery.
The very first report about the Sewol sinking – whether a tweet, a newswire alert, or a single paragraph on a website – has been lost to time. But its mission was simple: inform the public that a ship is sinking, and that hundreds of people are in peril. The slow-motion nature of the unfolding disaster meant that the initial report served as crucial information not only for the public at large, but for people whose loved ones were on the Sewol.
With each subsequent story, the action moved further and further away from the Maenggol Channel, and those who read or watched the stories became less affected by what had occurred. As the story spread overseas, it had far less direct impact on people’s lives, and became more and more of a fascinating and tragic tale from a distant land to be read over coffee or watched on the evening news.
The coverage of the Sewol sinking in the Western media is a roadmap on how a foreign story grows and changes direction when being covered on a continuing basis for an audience on the other side of the planet. It demonstrates how, with each leap, more details and nuances are sanded away.