The journalistic spirit
Good reporters have a variety of characteristics.
They must have a critical eye to discern things out of the ordinary, whether these are cases of social injustice or heartwarming altruistic deeds.
They also need to be decent writers because few would listen to their stories, unless they are presented in an interesting, compelling manner.
Also being a patient dialogue partner who can listen carefully helps. After all, a story often starts from a conversation a reporter has with a potential source but speaking too much can scare the source of the lead. And having no source means having no story.
However, even if you have a critical eye, good writing skills and are a good dialogue partner, you still need one other characteristic to thread everything together. I call it the “spirit of a journalist” or in more mundane terms, determination.
Of course, one can’t be a good reporter all the time. In other words, a bad reporter can be a good reporter sometimes, and at other times, a good reporter can be a bad reporter.
Why am I writing at length about the qualifications of a good reporter?
Recently, I have spotted one in our midst at The Korea Times.
You have probably read one of his running stories in this newspaper over the past week or so. As a matter of fact, it continued on the front page of Tuesday’s edition, headlined, “Military launches probe into file dumping case.”
The report marked a culmination of a two-week endeavor by one “good” reporter. I won’t identify this individual for two reasons. First a reporter can be considered good or bad according to their latest work. “You’re only as good as your last story,” is a common industry expression. Second, bragging about a good reporter our newspaper employs is not necessarily something people are keen to read about, but the purpose of this column is to share with the readership how this paper is produced.
The story began on a 1.5 column-wide photo on Page 4 of the May 31st edition. The article, accompanied by the photo, was not about the careless handling of sensitive documents by former and incumbent lawmakers of the ruling Saenuri Party. It was about how the National Assembly was unprepared on the opening day of its 19th term.
The reporter’s critical eye glistened, as he became curious about the content of a photo he took showing piles of documents discarded in the corridor of the National Assembly building at a time of transition when newly-elected lawmakers moved in and those outgoing moved out.
Some of the documents contained sensitive military information.
He proved to be patient enough to wait for a couple of days, to see whether the piles were cleared away. On the no-press day, Saturday, he went to the National Assembly and found that the piles were still there.
He was a good listener as he made inquiries to the lawmakers in question and their staff, obtaining statements and comments. The inquiries obviously alarmed the staff because the documents were nowhere to be found in the corridor the following day.
The story could have stopped there but he persisted.
He asked the Defense Ministry to intervene, pointing out the documents contained military information. The ministry was hesitant because it didn’t want to provoke the lawmakers who are responsible for budget allocations and parliamentary inspections.
“They are the people’s representatives,” one ministry official said. “We can’t touch them.”
But it was the opposition Democratic United Party that set things in motion.
Based on our report, it issued a statement chiding the ruling lawmakers for neglecting to handle sensitive information carefully. Finally, the Defense Security Command got in on the act.
Now it comes down to how its probe will improve the attitude of legislators and their staff in dealing with sensitive information.
Just imagine if it ended up in the wrong hands. We are still only in a truce with a provocative and unpredictable North Korea. It can’t be ruled out that there might be other elements here that can’t wait to get their hands on our military information.
What motivated this reporter to go to extra lengths?
There is no need to ask because we all know the answer.
It is the spirit of a journalist who thinks he or she can change the world for the better.
Sometimes this spirit helps in a small but meaningful way and, at other times, it doesn’t amount to anything. But we press on.
One senior journalist once said, “If we don’t believe in the chance that this might or might not come, there is no reason to continue doing this rotten job.” Maybe, his journalistic spirit is more relevant to a time when reporters drank and smoked heavily then died at a young age; or perhaps not. Somewhere in our mind, that old spirit lives on, waiting to be awakened, doesn’t it?