By: Han-Yong Sung

As with much of the rest of the rest of the world, South Korea’s media face a crisis as the information and knowledge ecosystem has changed and distrust in the media has increased. They can survive if they adapt to a changing ecosystem and recover the trust they have lost. If not, they will be essentially exiled.

The media’s period of crisis began as the 21st century dawned, mirroring what is going on across the globe as social media cannibalize attention spans. More citizens are choosing not to read newspapers or watch TV news broadcasts. The Korean Press Foundation reported that only 9.5 percent of South Koreans subscribed to newspapers in 2018. This is one-seventh what it was in 1996, when 69.3 percent did.

It is clear that media trust is collapsing decade by decade. The Korea Communications Commission reported in 2017 on what people consider to be necessary media: 93.4 percent of respondents in their 70s answered TV, as did 77.4 percent of those in their 60s and 52.1 percent in their 50s. But only 28.9 percent of those in their 40s, 14.1 percent in their 30s, 9.8 percent in 20s and 11.6 percent of teenagers answered TV.

Younger citizens thus rarely watch TV. This ratings drop has led to a fall in the sales of TV advertising. Terrestrial broadcasting corporations’ advertising revenues halved from W2.5 trillion in 2006 to W1.3 trillion (US$1.12 billion) in 2018. Korean Broadcasting System revenues dropped from W735 billion to W367 billion. Munhwa Broadcasting Corp. dropped from 658 billion to 293 billion, and Seoul Broadcasting System from 589 billion to 373 billion. These figures represent a huge plunge in ad sales. If these trends continue these terrestrial broadcasting corporations will soon go bankrupt.

Newspapers and broadcasters served as a public sphere where public opinion was formed. Now search engines, social media and YouTube are crowding out and substituting for newspapers and broadcasters. Consumers access news produced by journalists in newspapers and broadcasting outlets through search engines, but do not actually read newspapers or watch news broadcasts. Now, information is consumed through video on YouTube and Netflix. The South Korean media does not seem to have a place to stand anymore.

Causes of the Crisis

Almost all knowledge and information is on the internet. Trust in and authority of experts no longer exists. People do not respect professors or medical doctors, let alone the media. In the mid-1980s, reporters on watch duty would often get fact-finding calls from citizens, asking such questions as “[w]ho hit a grand slam in the last game of the Korean Baseball Series in the first year of the league” or “[h]ow old is the actor [actor’s name]?” Not anymore. You can just Google it. It now sounds almost unbelievable to say that newspaper agencies were once the storage place of “facts.”

Information also changed from text to video. In the past, people read text and conjured an image of events with their imagination. People who get information from text are used to deductive reasoning and developing logical thinking. Now, more people get information through video, which enhances intuition and accustoms viewers to inductive reasoning. In this environment, incorrect information can become rampant and strengthen confirmation bias.

When belief and fact collide, people used to change their beliefs. Now, people kick away the fact and hold on to their beliefs. Strengthened confirmation bias due to changes in the information and knowledge ecosystem is ubiquitous around the world. Voters are more vulnerable to illogical and irresponsible political propaganda. President Donald Trump’s victory the 2016 US elections and the UK’s Brexit vote follow this trend.

Second, the media actively took part in political struggles, bringing distrust upon themselves. This ecosystem change is a global phenomenon, but excessive political intervention by the media is a truly South Korean phenomenon. The “Anti Chosun Ilbo” started when President Roh Moo-hyun was in office. Citizens refused the Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo, and Dong-a Ilbo, which collided with the Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan, Roh Tae-woo, and Kim Young-sam administrations. The Hankyoreh, Kyunghyang Shinmun, and Oh My News stood at the antipode of the so-called Cho-Joong-Dong. Trust in Cho-Joong-Dong fell, as did trust in Han-Kyung-Oh.

Terrestrial broadcasting systems such as KBS, MBC, and SBS were systematically forced to the ruling party’s side. Chaos came with power transitions every 10 years. News broadcasts teeter-tottered according to the party in power. Members of terrestrial broadcasting corporations formed groups and drove each other out. The broadcasting corporations gained trust when Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun were in office, but squandered it when Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye were in power. It seems hopeless now.

The tragedy of the South Korean media is that the global tsunami of the information revolution and triangular waves of a loss of trust due to political struggles hit almost simultaneously. The spread of the internet, social media and YouTube exacerbated distrust in the existing media. This distrust, at the same time, accelerated the diffusion of the internet, social media and YouTube. The synergy between the tsunami and triangular waves is leading the South Korean media to run.

The South Korean media had a golden opportunity to regain the public’s trust in 2016, during the candlelight vigils. Many media organizations contributed to the personalization of state affairs by President Park and her confidant Choi. It was very symbolic that Chosun TV broadcasting—which reported on the “power-related corruption of Mir and the K Sports Foundations”— JTBC—which reported on “Choi Soon-sil’s intervention in state affairs”— and the Hankyoreh—which reported on “Choi Soon-sil Gate”—shared the Journalists Association of Korea’s award for journalism. Most media organizations did not lose their balance through the course of the impeachment indictment on November 9, 2016, and the Constitutional Court’s impeachment ruling on March 10, 2017.

Hostility Toward All Media

However, following the presidential election on May 9, 2017 when President Moon Jae-in was elected, the situation began to change again. Newspapers with a conservative propensity considered the Moon Jae-in administration’s “eradication of deep-rooted evil” as political revenge toward previous presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, and so they organized the anti-Moon Jae-in front and started a political struggle.

When President Moon increased the minimum wage and pursued a peace policy on the Korean Peninsula, these newspapers started to publicly show hostility towards the administration. Why? Because the so-called conservative identity that these newspapers represent have a “vested interest in a divided Korea.” President Moon started an assault on the political and economic interests of those who capitalize on the fact that Korea is divided into South and North.

The attacks by these newspapers on President Moon were followed by a counterattack on the media by President Moon’s supporters. At the candlelight vigils that took place in front the Seocho Prosecutors’ Office against the prosecutor’s investigation of Justice Minister Cho Kuk, many people held signs stating “media reform” and “Kigregi Out” (kigregi is a pejorative term for journalist). One interesting point is that these hostilities are not only directed at anti-Moon newspapers such as the Chosun Ilbo, but also at all existing media such as the Hankyoreh.

This may be because as the political struggle has intensified, confirmation bias strengthened the sentiment that “for those who are not unequivocally on our side, all are enemies.” Such a phenomenon is witnessed in protests held in Seoul Station and Gwanghwamun organized by anti-Moon religious organizations, far-right protesters, and the Liberty Korea Party. The so-called conservative voters are increasingly getting their information through one-person media such as YouTube instead of traditional media such as newspapers and broadcasting outlets.

Under these circumstances, traditional media such as newspapers and broadcasting outlets are aggravating the situation with their superficial and short-term response. They are projecting messages that are more extreme, with strong partisanship, to secure subscribers and viewers. The titles of newspaper editorials are becoming more provocative and use shallow expressions. Broadcasts are turning news on current affairs into entertainment.

People that describe important social issues as conspiracies are seen not only on general service program providers but also terrestrial networks. The media may be able to grab the readers’ or viewers’ attention in the short-term, but will lose trust in the long-run. They thus incur a great loss by pursuing a small, short-term profit.

The Tasks Faced by the Media and the Government

What will be done, and how should it be done? There are tasks for the media, and also for the government. The media should wake up. The change in the ecosystem of knowledge and information should be accepted and acknowledged. The good old past should be forgotten. Measures to recover trust should be launched immediately. Reporting methods and attitudes are the most important factors.

First, the media should distinguish between right and wrong when it comes to facts. What is right should be labeled as right, and what is wrong should be labeled as wrong, separate from political interests. Fact checks should be strengthened. Second, the media should sort out the contentions of stakeholders on different issues. They should identify similar accounts and different ones. Only then are debates possible.

Third, national unity should be pursued. The world is a place where people with different thoughts live together. Just because people have different thoughts, they should not be denied or exiled. Although one may dislike the far-right protesters, the so-called Taegeukgi forces, they should be accepted as legitimate members of a democratic society. Even if enthusiastic supporters of President Moon are spiteful, they should be acknowledged as citizens of South Korea.

We should acknowledge these differences yet pursue unified goals; there are more things that unite us than divide us. We should seek to identity similarities first and pass over the differences. Then these similarities can grow, and differences can be mitigated. The role of media is no longer enlightenment. It should not try to teach the people. It should rescue people who are suffocating under confirmation bias, drowning in a sea of information, and should be a “friendly guide” that humbly shows the way.

The government should execute legislation and policy to help journalism recover. The Broadcast Act should be revised to reform state-run broadcasting networks. The custom of broadcast reporting changing depending on the administration should stop. People should be induced to actually “read” something, with tax deductions provided for newspaper subscriptions and book purchases.

In schools, education in reading and writing should be strengthened. Voters who can think deeply after reading texts are crucial for deliberative democracy. The failure of deliberative democracy can lead to a failure of democracy itself. The collapse of journalism should not be ignored. The South Korean community should be protected.

Han-Yong Sung is a senior reporter at Hankyoreh in Seoul. He participated in the launch of Hankyoreh in 1988 and has been working as an editor and reporter for 31 years. He wrote this for the East Asia Foundation, a Seoul-based think tank.  Reprinted with permission.