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[Kim Myong-sik] Split society brews low public trust in mass media

Korea has many problems in politics, economy and national security. In addition, the media world of this country is in crisis under a new environment created by the emergence of the internet. It is a global phenomenon, but Korea perhaps suffers more greatly because it is better wired than other places.

Besides, ideological divisions here into the left, right and cynical center have rapidly lowered public trust in the mass media, which have mostly chosen to pursue a specific direction amid the torrent of social polarization. Agenda set by one newspaper are ignored by others whose loyal readers regard “exclusives” reported by the opposing paper as worthless, and vice versa, damaging each other’s credibility.

Not surprisingly, a recent overseas survey of the public’s trust in the media revealed that Korea ranked the lowest on the list of 37 countries in Europe, the Americas and the Asia-Pacific region with over 60 percent of internet penetration. The research, conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism collaborating with Oxford University, found in Korea only 25 percent of respondents say they trust news in the media of all markets they are exposed to. (Greece was No. 36 with 26 percent.)

What caused particular concern was the surveyors’ conclusion that declining trust was apparently linked to political tension, like in Spain where trust is down 7 percentage points to 44 percent from the previous survey, as the media have become caught up in the wider splits in Spanish society after the Catalan referendum. It is also down in Austria by 4 percentage points following a divisive series of elections.

The impact of Donald Trump’s first year as US President can be seen in the polarization of the news media: Following the 2016 election, those who identify on the left (49 percent) have almost three times as much trust in the news as those on the right (17 percent). The left gave their support to newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times, while the right’s alienation from mainstream media has become ever more entrenched, according to the 2018 RISJ Digital News Report 2018.

Panelists in a recent seminar held by the Kwanhun Club, a fraternity of senior journalists, on the theme of “the health of media environment” seriously discussed what this unhealthy media trust figure meant regarding difficulties facing Korean news outlets after three decades of fast changes in the communication market.

“Internet brought about new opportunities for the media market but a crisis of survival for the mainstream media,” Hong Sung-chul, a professor from Gyeonggi University and former Munhwa Ilbo reporter, said. “The reduced number of newspaper subscribers and TV news viewers caused reduction not only of their advertisement revenues but their social influence. The shrinking of their stature means the lessening of their public service function too.”

According to the Korean Media Yearbook, the combined total manpower in the editorial departments of 10 newspapers published in Seoul stood at 2,869 men and women in 1996; the figure declined to 2,108 in 2007, and then rose to 2,377 in 2017, including staff for online services. Total revenues went down by 343 billion won ($293.9 million), or 20.4 percent, to 1.34 trillion won between 1999 and 2017 in these newspaper companies.

Newspapers tried hard to keep their subscribers from shifting to internet and social media, but their free home pages now attract only about 5 percent of online news consumers, with about 90 percent reading news items on Naver and other internet portals. As for the paid circulation of the three largest dailies, Chosun, Dong-A and Joongang, the Audit Bureau of Certification in its 2019 report revealed they were 10 percent, 2 percent and 22 percent down, respectively, from the figures of 2012, and roughly a half of the level a decade ago.

Professor Lee Jong-hyuk from Kyung Hee University, a former Chosun reporter, diagnosed the Korean media crisis as resulting from the emergence of alternative media, lower quality of product contents and loss of impartiality. He noted that the media came behind medicine, education, military and civic groups, and just ahead of the prosecution, police and parliament in a survey of social reliability. He called the present situation a crisis of integrity.

Debaters determined the problem of partiality as the first thing to do away with if the mainstream media is to restore “integrity.” Deplorable are some newspapers taking rock hard positions in support of specific political forces and engaging in proxy wars for them instead of lashing out at injustice based on democratic ideals, not ideologies.

Journalists, media owners and even policymakers have over the years made innovative experiments to stave off the internet crisis, only to meager success so far because “consumers” perceived no crisis and freely swim in the jumble of news. The only solution is luring them back with contents of quality unavailable via social media, YouTube, podcasts or internet portals. One possibility is shown in the fact that news conveyance through Facebook is decreasing worldwide.

Public broadcasters KBS and MBC, which used to be among the more trusted and influential news outlets until about a decade ago, have almost abandoned the prestige themselves since the new administration replaced their managements. Partiality cost dearly as ratings plummeted in their prime time news shows to a humiliating 1-2 percent range for MBC and slightly above 10 percent with KBS.

While journalists are sad about shrunken newsrooms, on the TV news we can see hundreds of reporters and cameramen swarming around the targets of sensational events. Leaving the task largely to news agencies, newspapers need to concentrate their resources on investigative reporting that YouTubers or podcasters can hardly attempt.

The seminar discussed possible external support through financing special research and reportage projects. Panelists agreed on the need for donations from conglomerates to help the media maintain the quality of journalism against the onslaught of unqualified online news providers. Some cited the case of Warren Buffett, who spent $200 million to purchase his ailing hometown newspaper in Omaha in 2011, and George Soros, who has also made substantial donations to media organizations either directly or indirectly.

The Kwanhun Club is an example of successful no-strings-attached donations. Late Hyundai Group founder Chung Ju-yung funded the club for the sole reason that his dead brother was its founding member. Its Shinyung Fund has been financing overseas training of journalists, publications by journalists and other programs. 

Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He served as a secretary of the Kwanhun Club. -- Ed.
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