Monday, December 19, 2011

The Death of Kim Jong Il: International News in the Information Age

My wife and I returned to our apartment in southern Seoul less than four hours ago when we first learned about the death of North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il.  My wife first learned of this from an internet web site.  I was also logging on to check e-mail and do some work, so I quickly went to some news sites, all of which were reporting the death.  My next instinct was to turn on the television, and I've alternated watching BBC World and CNN International for most of the past three hours.
I've long been interested in the international flow of news, the role of technology in flow of news, and its impact on international relations and foreign policy.   The past few hours, as I've experienced, yield several insights as follows.

  • North Korea waited more than two days before reporting Kim's death to its own citizens and the world through the government's official broadcaster.  The obvious questions of why and what happened during these two days have received some attention in news reports but will deserve much further analysis.  Reuters referred to the delay in reporting Kim's death with the headline "Information black hole as North Korean leader dies"
  • Initial reports from both CNN and the BBC originated from everywhere but Korea.   Both correspondents relied on their reporters in Beijing, and in London, Washington, D.C.
  • Both CNN and the BBC showed video of the woman anchor tearfully announcing Kim Jong Il's death on North Korean television.
  • There was heavy use of split screen or voice-over file video of Kim Jong Il and North Korea.
  • Both news organizations also turned quickly to university and research institute based North Korea experts in London, Washington and in Seoul.  The experts from Seoul initially included professors from Yonsei University, Ehwa Womans University and Han Sung Joo, former South Korean ambassador to the U.S.  Undoubtedly the time difference between Korea and the New York-Washington D.C. area explained the absence of a dozen or more well-recognized "Korea experts" in the network commentaries.
  • The initial hours of coverage also brought in short segments with other correspondents who had visited North Korea or reported from there.  One of these was by former CNN correspondent Mike Chinoy.
  • Both news organizations aired a number of reports that were retrospective, obituary-style reviews of the life and career of Kim Jong Il, most obviously pre-recorded, probably months ago.
Interestingly, in this era of the "Arab Spring," the first four hours or so of coverage by these two leading news organizations did not connect much at all with internet or social networking activity.   Comments on the implications of this and the above patterns are welcome.

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