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Why Do We Believe Everything We Hear About North Korea?


By Jenna Gibson and Chris Hurst

The discovery of a unicorn lair, the execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle by a pack of rabid dogs, and a decree that all North Korean men must copy Kim Jong Un’s haircut. All of these were stories that were widely covered in mainstream Western news outlets. And all of them are false.

These stories spread like wildfire around the internet, prompting North Korea watchers to push back. “Other than North Korean executions, what other news stories routinely get circulated as fact despite unknown and unreliable sources?” asked Alastair Gale, the Wall Street Journal’s Seoul correspondent, on Twitter.

We’ve been down this road before. After the dog execution story, the Washington Post wrote an article discussing this phenomenon. “This seems to be a problem particular to stories out of North Korea, about which almost any story is treated as broadly credible, no matter how outlandish or thinly sourced. There’s no other country to which we bring such a high degree of gullibility… We know so little about what really happens inside the country, and especially inside the leader’s head, that very little is disprovable. But the things we do know are often so bizarre that just about anything can seem possible.”

In journalism school, students are taught the five factors of newsworthiness: timing, significance, proximity, prominence, and human interest. Other professors added a final, key marker of newsworthiness – novelty. Is it odd? Unexpected? Maybe a little ridiculous? That can also be worth a story.

That’s exactly where these crazy stories about North Korea fit – and exactly what makes them so dangerous.

Take this week’s big story, for example. For the last few days, headlines have been proclaiming that Kim Jong Un executed two high-level officials using an anti-aircraft gun. Their supposed crime? Sleeping and slouching during meetings.

This story was picked up in dozens of major news outlets, all running similar astonished headlines. It’s not until the second or third paragraph, however, that the reporter mentions the fact that this news has not been confirmed. In fact, the South Korean newspaper who first reported the story relied on a single, anonymous source.

At least they were upfront about the possibility that this didn’t actually happen, right? Unfortunately, that’s just not good enough. According to a recent study from Columbia University, 59 percent of links shared on social media have never been clicked – meaning most people share stories without actually reading past the headline.

So what? What does it matter if people mistakenly think that Kim Jong Un is running around executing his generals with an anti-aircraft gun?

Well, besides the obvious implications for the stability of the country and the state of mind of a dangerous dictator, it creates a vicious cycle of confirmation bias that can become extremely difficult to break.

Confirmation bias is an important force in psychology – in essence, it means that people tend to see only evidence that confirms what they already think about a topic and ignore contradictory information. In this case, once people see several headlines about Kim Jong Un’s crazy antics, that is the paradigm that becomes set in people’s minds. And that paradigm makes it incredibly difficult to take North Korea seriously as a dangerous threat to global security and as a proven offender of countless gross human rights violations.

There is an easy way to stop this confirmation bias – by fact checking these reports before putting them to press. However, for journalist this can be a difficult task. The North Korean government can be an information black hole, as noted by Reporters Without Borders. North Korea has ranked near the bottom of their press freedom index since its creation. Few visa are granted for foreign press by the government, and those that are granted are closely watched by minders that restrict what they can report. Even depending on eye witness reporting, which has become popular in the age of Twitter and Facebook live streaming, is impossible because there is no internet for the public.

The lack of information from the North Korean government and its people leads reporters to rely on foreign governments to verify reports. But this creates its own issues, as those sources may use information to their advantage. Adding an additional layer of confusion is North Korea itself, which routinely sends out hyperbolic announcements about their miracle cures for cancer and the like. In the end, journalists end up filling this information vacuum with unsubstantiated news stories that are more viral than factual.

In addition, some may be wary of not reporting a big story just because it can’t be confirmed. During WWII, the public famously ignored reports about concentration camps because they sounded too unbelievable – but of course we know now that those reports turned out to be true.

All of this is not meant to say that journalists should not cover North Korea, in fact quite the opposite. They should just be aware of the power of sensational headlines and unconfirmed information. When it comes to North Korea, confirmation is particularly difficult, but also particularly important. Because it is so closed off, media reports are often the only way for people to learn about North Korea at all. Let’s make sure what they learn is actually true.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications and Chris Hurst is an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from stephan’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.