by Dominique Jack
In 2012, I became inspired to pursue broadcast journalism. The inspiration came in part from one of my favorite Korean singers who became a radio host and in part because I wanted to create a space for music fans to learn more about the world through a shared love for a specific genre of music. In my own experience. I learned more about world politics and became more aware of gender and racial issues through Korean music artists and fellow fans who discussed them. My hope was to make a space where fans would be able to discuss Korean pop or K-pop, music critically but respectfully, unlike what seemed to be prevalent in mainstream American media.
During my high school years (2009 – 2013), the Kpop genre did not seem to be as widely covered or respected by mainstream American media as the European pop artists who were famous at the time. The few articles that were written about Kpop during that time characterized singers as being “factory produced” and described the genre as being a fabricated world, crafted to feed into fans delusions for success. A frustratingly memorable article called “Factory Girls” from the New Yorker in 2012 described a member of the girl group Girls’ Generation as “ a figure in a glass case.” This type of coverage felt dehumanizing and condescending when in my own eyes these artists seemed just as honest and hardworking as anyone else. I read translated Korean interviews and watched documentaries with the members of my favorite groups. In them, they discussed moving into dorms together and received training in singing, dancing, and rapping at their record labels. This was the part of Kpop that many reports described as being “factory produced.” However, it didn’t seem much different to me than someone who went to college or trade school to hone their craft before entering the workforce. Learning that many of these artists came from humble backgrounds as I did and had sacrificed their free time to practice and excel was also something I could identify with as a student. With all this in mind, I found it frustrating when someone boiled all of these artists’ hard work down to being “superficial” or “manufactured products.”
As I’m nearing the end of my college career at Brooklyn College, Kpop has come more into the mainstream because of the accomplishments of the boy group BTS. After their win on the Billboard Music Awards in May 2017, many major American outlets covered them. ABC, NBC, FOX, CNN, Forbes, Rolling Stone, Vogue, and Vice were just a few. There were over 80 reports published about BTS while they were in America, ranging from videos, audio, and written articles. As enjoyable as it was to watch one of my favorite groups dominate American media, I was still frustrated and disappointed with a lot of the coverage from the perspective of a journalism student. In most of these reports, radio hosts, TV reporters, and YouTubers asked BTS survey like questions about their favorite American songs and foods. Admittedly, this coverage may have been in part due to restrictions put on the interviewers as to which questions could be asked and may have produced under the assumption that non-fans would not watch all of the interviews to notice the repetitiveness of it. Even though reporters can be given some benefit of the doubt for this, many of them still mainly spoke with BTS’ leader and only English speaking member, named RM which in turn excluded many of the other members from actually taking part in the interviews. Although RM tried to include his fellow members in the interviews as much as possible by translating, even fans could tell that having to do so constantly was taking a toll on him. It was also upsetting to watch the other members only nod and dart their eyes around the room during interviews where reporters barely acknowledged them. The survey like questions continued right up until BTS returned to the United States for the American Music Awards in November 2017. Even after announcing their partnership with UNICEF earlier that month, for a campaign against child abuse and bullying, the press coverage still focused more on American artists they hoped to collaborate with. Despite this, I was still able to take away a lot of personal lessons of what to do and what not to do as a journalist going forward.
The most significant lesson I’ve learned is the importance of researching an interview subject before conducting the actual interview. From what I’ve been taught, it shows basic respect to the person being interviewed and helps show that you have an actual interest them. Based on the negative response reporters received for their coverage of BTS, doing the research also seems to save one from a lot of embarrassment and harsh criticism in the long run. In one of the group’s most infamous interviews, an anchor for The Morning Blend talk show on Fox 4 Now, asked the members if they gained their popularity through YouTube. Considering our current media landscape where many singers have gotten popular from going viral on YouTube, it seemed like a fair assumption. However, even the group’s leader, RM was shocked at the question because they’d never had, and still have not had a viral song. In the comments under the station’s YouTube video and on social media, fans voiced that the anchor should have researched the group to understand their background instead of making assumptions. The anchor received so much backlash that the company removed the video from their official YouTube channel, edited out the question, and disabled the comments when the video was re-uploaded. In addition, another morning show anchor in LA was corrected on live TV for not only calling the members by incorrect names but also mispronouncing them. Other publications had to upload apologies for cropping members from photos because they didn’t realize BTS was a seven-person group.
After watching so many of these interviews, it was very telling to hear BTS voice their shock when a reporter knew and asked them specifics about their music, philanthropy, and individual projects. These reporters also seemed to receive better responses not only from the fans but also from BTS themselves. In an interview with Robert Herrera from Front Row Live Entertainment, they were noticeably more engaged and answered Herrera’s questions more naturally. A fan commented “I like how the interviewer at least have ideas about BTS like he did research before this interview. A professional.” The comment garnered over four thousand likes. In another video interview with Liam McEwan from J-14 Magazine, a fan noted “This guy is a really good interviewer. He did his research and asked good questions. He’s listening to them and giving them respect. You can tell they’re comfortable even though this interview wasn’t designed to be humorous.” This response gathered over five thousand likes. Realizing how much more comfortable and open BTS was with reporters who referenced their work or asked about comments they made in previous interviews, I tried to do the same with a recent interview I conducted with the editor of an online publication. When I quoted one of her previous articles and asked her to expand on it, she became noticeably more excited about the question and gave a more extended answer.
Watching BTS’ interviews in America has been an emotional rollercoaster for a fan but also a big learning experience as a journalism student. Realizing how frustrating it is to hear journalists from multiple publications ask an interviewee the same questions, I’ve been doing more research into my subjects to form unique and targeted questions about comments they’ve made previously. As I’m learning more about how to approach my interview subjects in a respectful and insightful way, I hope that American media will do the same when BTS comes back to the U.S.