In the quiet dining room of Saesam Church, I work on my computer, sitting on the mats on the floor around the dining table. In stark contrast to the quiet clicking of keys, the sound of my iPhone burst through the silence. Steven Park, the public relations official for Jehovah’s Witness Korea, calls to talk about setting up an interview for me with one of the people in his office. He tells me he’s reviewed the questions I sent late the night before, and we laugh about working overtime during the Olympics.
Halfway through the conversation, we get down to business. He tells me he has read over my questions, and feels that my story angle is not applicable to the Jehovah’s Witness. “We would be doing the same kind of ministry regardless of the Olympics, so I don’t think we really apply to your story.”
I counter with the fact there are 1,000 missionaries from all over Korea stationed at every street corner surrounding the event, and therefore it must affect them if only in quantity of members.
He insists that numbers were the only difference, and it was as if the city had changed populations, they just adjusted accordingly.
I explain that that fact in itself was an excellent testament to their consistency in ministry, and would be a great asset to my article as well as good public relations for them. In the kindest and most complimentary way possible, Park again, refused.
At the end of the phone call, I knew it was the final chop to the interview I’d been chasing for the last week.
It started out with a conversation at the opening ceremonies.
As we got off the bus taking us to downtown Pyeongchang, Jehovah Witness’ were stationed at every block. Thrilled to see “faith-y” people, Joe Chen, my travel partner, and I approached them immediately. We attempt to engage them in conversation, but to our surprise, none of them spoke English. They instead tried to force pamphlets into our hands, and pointed at the website URL. This happened five or six times from the bus stop into downtown.
Later in the evening, Joe Chen and I walked up to some students standing by the Jehovah Witnesses stand, and Joe Chen, realizing they were from China, asked in Mandarin if they would be willing to give an interview. The woman said they would call for someone to come and speak in English to us, but they made every effort to shy from our cameras.
They told us someone who spoke English was going to come and speak with us, so we continued to stay by their stand, waiting. After 15 minutes, they told us that no one was going to come and do an interview. No explanation, but they hoped we would have a great night. We gave up on an interview with them that night.
Two days later we were walking the streets of Gangneung when we ran into a large group of Jehovah Witnesses congregating after a shift of evangelizing. We had a Korean friend with us, and she asked if anyone was available to interview.
“If you take our group picture, we will give you an interview.” They said.
Naturally I obliged and took their group picture, and snap one on my camera as well. We approached the group leader. When we ask for the interview, he picked up his phone and made a call. Joe Chen started recording on the camera, and we began the waiting process again. Twenty minutes later, the leader came up to us and said I could leave my card with them, but that no one present was permitted to give an interview. I gave them my card in case they changed their minds, and thanked them.
We weren’t 15 feet away when one of their leaders chased us down and started yelling in Korean. My Korean friend started yelling back, and told me the leader wanted me to delete the picture I took of them. I asked why, and he said, “there are official pictures on our website that you can use.”
We tried fighting him on it, saying I didn’t get an interview so it was something I could work with, but to no avail. In the end, defeated, I deleted the picture. He thanked me and left.
Throughout this process, I could not tell if these people were being difficult, or if I was failing as a reporter. Jehovah Witnesses have talked to reporters before, but apparently my story did not have any validity. It took a few days to realize that my asking was not wrong, and their response was not wrong either.
I was going to write the story, and they chose not to tell their story. Looking back at the situation I know I should have looked up their hierarchy as soon as I realized they
could not give interviews without permission. With the religion being much more heavily regulated, I should have gone to the top immediately, and worked my way from there.
As a public relations major, this has given me a different perspective on working with reporters. As the reporter, I was going to tell the story with the Jehovah Witnesses in it, regardless of their commenting or not. If I was in their position, I would much rather tell my organization’s version of the story, than have it be told without our input. It was a humbling experience, but I know for the future that religion reporting has a lot of protocols one must go through. Doing the thorough research in advance is key to a successful interview and article.
Back in the silence of the kitchen at Saesam church, I began to write. I write about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and about the Mormons, and other religious groups. In that draft, and with a good deal of editing, I managed to tell a story without personal bias or frustration. It was not easy, but some battles just are better off left alone.