The news took my breath away. In a year like this, with so much happening, it was still shocking when I read the tweet from Katy Tur of NBC: “North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is brain dead, according to two US officials.”
The ramifications of this are earth-shattering. For a country with no clear line of succession, who would take the dictator’s place? Would it be his sister, who may struggle to find political support in parts of the North Korea regime? Would it be Kim Jong Un’s oldest child, who is thought to be 10 years old?
With no clear successor to Kim Jong Un, would there be a power vacuum? Would the US attempt to democratize North Korea in its moment of weakness? Could this finally be the moment to transition North Korea into a functioning member of the world order?
And, perhaps most importantly: What happens to North Korea’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapon stockpile? In a transition or meltdown of the North Korean regime, could those weapons end up in the wrong hands?
Five minutes later, Tur tweeted: “I’ve deleted that last tweet out of an abundance of caution. Waiting on more info. Apologies.” She hasn’t tweeted about Kim Jong Un since.
Tur’s tweets didn’t come out of nowhere; Kim Jong Un missed a state celebration on April 15, raising concerns over his health, and CNN reported that intelligence received by US officials indicated Kim Jong Un was in “grave danger after undergoing a previous surgery.” However, a statement from the South Korean government and sources in the Chinese government have stated that this much isn’t true.
While obtaining information from inside the North Korean government is notoriously difficult, and differing intelligence reports don’t exclude the possibility of Kim Jong Un being in grave danger, the reporting of this world event was — without a doubt — a journalistic blunder.
It began with a report on the Daily NK, a site run by North Korean defectors, stating they had received an anonymous tip that Kim Jong Un’s existing cardiovascular troubles have worsened. That snowballed into an international media frenzy that quickly cooled overnight, as combatting reports emerged.
Let’s make this clear: Katy Tur should not have made her initial tweet. Regardless of the reporting behind it, the fact that she tweeted it — instead of the news being reported fully and thoroughly with an NBC article — raises doubts of its veracity.
Secondly, the tweet relied on “one US current and one former US official.” When the intelligence that US officials receive from North Korea itself is questionable, at best, it is irresponsible to report such a huge piece of news on second-hand information that may not be correct in the first place. According to CNN’s reporting, US officials were simply monitoring intelligence of Kim Jong Un’s dire health, and had not yet confirmed that the intelligence was indeed accurate.
Incidents like this do nothing to build the trust and credibility that news organizations rely on. In almost all situations, reports from these organizations are truthful and non-partisan, but despite the bulk of good work that they do, it is incidents like these — easily avoidable and irresponsible at best — that degrade the already fragile trust in our institutions.
A critical eye is always needed when evaluating reports from our institutions, no matter the amount of trust we may have in them.
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