Monday, January 13

Reading news about General Kim

Photo from

When a dog bites a man, it’s not news. But when a man bites a dog, that’s news. Unless, of course, you’re talking about coverage of North Korea.

Late in December, news outlets worldwide picked up a story saying that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un personally witnessed his uncle, whom he had convicted of treason, get fed to a pack of starved dogs.

The story has since been debunked (see the Washington Post and this Reuters wire report). Hongkong-based Wen Wei Po was the first to push the story despite its lone source being a satirical post on a Chinese social media site. The report got carried by the Straits Times, then by other Western media outlets, mainly because Wen Wei Po is seen as a “pro-Beijing” publication. Apparently, editors had sufficient reason to believe the story was backed by sources from within the political machinery of China, which is seen as the most reliable among North Korea’s few remaining friends.

But why did this tale get so much traction in the first place? It’s easy to blame the confusion on the secretiveness of North Korea, which is possibly the world’s last remaining black hole of information. We don’t know exactly what goes on in there. The state is notoriously closed to outside scrutiny. What little news that makes it out of the hermit state does so either through Chinese sources, the South Korean intelligence agency, or pro-DPRK propaganda from the Korean Central News Agency.

It isn’t entirely their fault, however. This sort of thing happens all the time online. Sharing a link with an attention-grabbing headline on Facebook, after all, is much easier than taking the time to read the story to scrutinize its credibility. News websites are not pressured to see if a story checks out before pushing it, either. A factual error is much easier to fix online than on a national daily’s print edition or a network’s primetime newscast.

It happened when a news story spread about Pope Francis supposedly declaring that there is no Hell. A quick Google search would reveal that there is no such thing as the “Third Vatican Council,” during which the Pope purportedly made the declaration. It happened in June 2012, when Ricky Lo reported that Manny Pangilinan had “virtually confirmed” a merger between TV5 and GMA7, without including a direct quote to support the news. Pangilinan refuted the story. And it happened in August 2012 as authorities pursued a search-and-rescue operation for then-Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, whose plane had crashed in the waters off Masbate. Someone tweeted that she had spoken to Robredo’s daughter, who allegedly told her the Secretary was “alive and well.” A hundred retweets later, the information sadly turned out to be false.

It’s a good habit to read the news, but it’s an even better habit to read it critically. In my next column, I’ll talk about journalism as a discipline of verification and try to teach you how to read the news as diligently as journalists report it.

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