Media and the Olympics

By Breanna Beers

The skiers weren’t the only ones going downhill at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics — journalists made several major mistakes in their coverage, raising questions about intercultural media integrity. NBC’s Joshua Cooper Ramo was dismissed after he praised Japan’s role in Korean development during the Olympic opening ceremony, asserting that “every Korean will tell you that Japan is a cultural, technological, and economic example, has been so important to their own transformation.”

In reality, Japan’s brutal annexation of the Korean peninsula remains an open wound in the minds of many Koreans. During the 35-year occupation from 1910 to 1945, Koreans were compelled into forced labor, conscripted to fight in the Japanese army, and abducted to serve as ‘comfort women’ in military brothels.

Although Korea gained independence after World War II, when the peninsula split into two separate nations, the memory of Japanese occupation is still vivid in Korean memory. Outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, for example, a statue of a seated comfort woman stares accusingly at Japanese diplomats, a daily reminder of unforgotten crimes. Real shoes rest beneath her chair, and in the rain or cold, South Korean nationalists provide her with a real raincoat or scarf.

Ramo’s remark about Korean appreciation of Japanese cultural and economic development of the peninsula was not only inaccurate, but deeply offensive, leading to the termination of his assignment at NBC.

Communications professor Heather Heritage expressed concern about the way flagrant misinformation such as these remarks has eroded public trust in the media. However, though Ramo’s ignorance on this issue while on assignment as an ‘Asian analyst’ is inexcusable, Heritage gave NBC credit for at least retracting the statement.

“Everybody’s going to make mistakes, but do they hold themselves accountable to their mistakes?” Heritage said. “We see that a lot of the media outlets do. They publish those retractions, they print the truth, they say on-air ‘This was an error, this was what happened, here’s how we’re going to fix it.’ They put out those apologies, and I think that should reflect the trust in the media more than whether or not they made a mistake.”

That said, this was not the first of NBC’s missteps in covering the Winter Olympics this year. During the opening ceremony, NBC’s Katie Couric said that the reason why the Dutch often excel in speed skating at the Olympics is because ice skates are a common form of transportation on Amsterdam’s canals during the winter. An enormous number of Dutch Twitter users called out this mistake; in reality, it requires multiple days of sub-zero temperatures for the canals to freeze, and it usually only happens a few times per year.

Still more comically, Chicago ABC affiliate WLS-Ch. 7 displayed a graphic during their coverage of the Olympics that indicated that the games were being held not in Pyeongchang, South Korea, but at P.F. Chang’s, an Asian-American restaurant chain. The graphic had been prepared for a satirical piece, but was accidentally displayed behind the station’s actual coverage of the Olympic Games. The restaurant embraced the unintentional advertising, temporarily renaming one of its menu items to ‘Pyeongchang lettuce wraps.’

Heritage remarked on how quickly such a simple — albeit amusing — mistake could go viral. In an ironic twist, the errors of the news media rapidly become news themselves.

“Something innocent, like one little comment, something on a graphic that’s incorrect, someone could screen-grab that with a cell phone and post it all over social media,” said Heritage. “Then it can go viral, and in essence it becomes news.”

To Heritage, these errors are troubling, especially as the news industry becomes increasingly precarious. While some mistakes are inevitable, journalistic integrity is more important than ever in this age of information. Heritage emphasized the need for careful examination of each case before taking action, and a set company policy for how to deal with mistakes when they happen — especially when public outcry is involved.

“How do we hold people accountable? It shouldn’t be by audience vote or social media mob mentality; it should be looking at, well, what was the situation?” Heritage said. “Is this something done for shock value, with malicious intent, or is it something that is just an honest mistake? And if it is the former, then you go to policy, so hopefully you have your policies of professionalism and social media in place. And if it’s a mistake, you figure out where the system is broken, how to fix this for next time.”

Breanna Beers is a freshman Molecular Biology and Journalism double major and an off-campus news writer for Cedars. She loves exercising curiosity, hiking new trails, and quoting The Princess Bride whether it’s relevant or not.

AP contributed to this story

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