Tag Archive | "news"

The Media Cultures that Shape News on North Korea

By Andray Abrahamian

A month ago we ended a thrilling rollercoaster news event that helped temporarily distract us from coronavirus news: the health of Kim Jong-un. This story was due to some specific features of newsgathering and reporting on North Korea. With a bit of hindsight on that maelstrom, it might be worthwhile to zoom out and take a look at the media cultures that help shape North Korea news more generally, when there isn’t necessarily a “BREAKING” headline to get our attention.

Three media cultures create the majority of English-language news about North Korea: the United States, United Kingdom and the Republic of Korea. All three have unique characteristics and generate news in specific ways to meet particular goals and standards.

In the United States, news production rests on the foundational value of objectivity, though that has come under strain in the past decade. But this principle isn’t applied evenly, of course. One area in which the objectivity norm is less robust when news covers foreign policy issues generally and war/conflict in particular. The United States is, of course, in conflict with North Korea.

In Britain, “rather than objectivity, notions of truth, independence and ‘fair play’ held greater appeal”, according to one scholar [1]. Partisanship is allowable, so long as the subject is dealt with equitably and rationally. When the subject is deemed to be acting wholly unfairly, however, the requirements for fairness in news coverage are understandably diminished. North Korea as a news subject finds itself in this position, as does, say, Dominic Cummings. This is particularly true for British tabloids, which pursue “righteous causes” with a vigor largely unseen in American media.

South Korea finds its news media embedded in a politicized and polarized environment. With a relatively short history of media freedom, large media companies tend to cleave closer to the state than in the other two countries. That state that is involved in an ongoing structural competition for legitimacy with its Northern neighbor, even when the government in Seoul is pursuing a policy of rapprochement.

These media cultures agenda-set for reporting worldwide on this topic. The United States is a media hegemon, whose media outlets command the attention of media in other languages. The UK is home to several agenda-setting media outlets, notably the BBC, the Times and the Guardian. South Korea is less influential globally, but produces a great volume of news about North Korea, often translated into English.

In the United States, as noted, the objectivity norm is reduced when covering foreign affairs. This is partly because media are reliant on official sources for content. (One study from the 1970s found that 75 percent of front-page stories on the Washington Post and New York Times depended on official sources.) The U.S. government can therefore present the information that is to constitute the news story and then simultaneously give the official opinion on it, framing the information from the beginning. If a journalist can find an opposing view, it tends to remain a subordinate “counterpoint” in the binary relationship between the two.

This doesn’t mean media are simply complicit in how officials frame foreign affairs and conflict. As Daniel Hallin puts it, “officials, in their efforts to control political appearances, necessarily challenge the autonomy of the media, and journalists naturally resist” [2]. But, as Michael Schudson, another media scholar, notes: “the media are obligated not only to make profits but to maintain their credibility in the eyes of readers,” as well as “expert and often critical sub-groups in the population, particularly in Washington, D.C.” [3].

This is an important frame and might manifest itself, for example, by describing North Korean acts as “saber-rattling”, while the US and allies conduct “shows of force”. This is easy to slip into. After all, if you ascribe to small-l liberal values and a liberal world order, perspectives favorable to Pyongyang are usually fundamentally opposed to both American values and strategic interests. How does one find an objective viewpoint on such a country and its policies?

That fact that the DPRK doesn’t respect human rights and individual rights in the same way as western democracies also challenges the “fairness doctrine” of British media. This can happen with conservative, establishment press like The Economist, which famously had a cover of Kim Jong Il captioned “Greetings, Earthlings!” and bid him farewell when he died with a self-referential “Farewell, Earthling’s”.

UK tabloid news outlets are even more likely to mock North Korea. When The Sun snuck two journalists onto a tour of North Korea in 2012, “tricking” the regime, they noted that apartments in Sinuiju were “a sham, they were all windowless and empty. Despot Kim Jong-il had ordered the ‘homes’ to be built to make it appear to the Chinese that North Koreans were living well.” People were of course “zombie-like”. They also produced commentary about a “glum” circus: “The Sun’s shocking pictures expose the despotic regime’s everyday cruelty that will outrage animal lovers.” Still, the headline: “North Korea’s got Talent: Animals Made to Skate in Secretive State” is pretty amazing.

These descriptions are dubious and the point about the apartments manifestly nonsense. The point here is fairness becomes unnecessary when describing a place that is so alien, difficult and visits all manner of woes on its own citizens. And also on bears, who I agree should not be forced to skate.

Finally, South Korean media culture fits into what Hallin and Mancini call the “polarized pluralist model”. In this model, the processes that disembedded news media from political parties, interests and the state has not taken place. Pre-democratic South Korea has left a legacy wherein the expectation of cooperation between media and government is high. The government also has more leverage over news organizations than in the UnitedStates or UK.

There is a conservative press and a progressive press, both of which favor different approaches to North Korea, though overall within the framework of an alliance and good relations with the United States. The DPRK is a competitor state, after all, even if a pro-engagement administration like the current one is in power.

Along with this news-industry model, the specific news culture allows single anonymous sources to be the basis of a story, something not really possible in the United States or Britain. News stories can be much more “rumor-y” in Korea in general.

The nature of government leaks and anonymous source stories on North Korea, of which there are many, does change according to which kind of government is in power. Under the previous two conservative administrations, the stories pushed in the direction of the media tended to emphasize instability, human rights violations and deprivation. Under this progressive one, stories are more likely to emphasize stability, reasonable leadership and areas where compromise might be possible. What matters for English-language news is these are the pool of leaks that get picked up by the South Korean press, then sometimes re-interpreted by western outlets.

Ultimately, none of this is about what is true or false per se. But as media consumers being aware without being hyperbolic – no need to scream “fake news” or any of that nonsense – is important as we attempt to understand a difficult and complicated country.

Andray Abrahamian is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute, Visiting Scholar at George Mason University Korea, and Senior Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.


[1] Mark Hampton, “The ‘Objectivity’ Ideal And Its Limitations In 20th-Century British Journalism,” Journalism Studies Vol. 9, No. 4, (2008): 477.

[2] Daniel Hallin, The Uncensored War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 7

[3] Michael Schudson, The Sociology of News (New York: Norton, 2003), 40.

Picture from flickr account of Eli

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Korean Trust in the Media Remains Low, Despite Recent Victories for Press Freedom

By Jenna Gibson

In the United States, the rise of terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts,” as well as scandals about election manipulation through made-up news stories and biased sources have led to a spike in discussion about the inherent trustworthiness of the news media. However, when it comes to overall distrust in the news, the United States has nothing on South Korea.

According to the University of Oxford Reuters Institute’s 2017 Digital News Report, South Korea has the lowest trust in news out of the 36 countries surveyed around the world. Just 23 percent of Koreans said they trust news overall in that survey, and only 12 percent said that the news is free from political and business influence. By contrast, the United States also reported a low trust in news, just 38 percent, putting it at number 28 out of 36. The report, which has examined media consumption around the world since 2013, added Korea in 2016, and the results that year were about the same – 22 percent said they trusted the news, which was 25th out of the 26 countries surveyed (only ahead of Greece).

Another interesting finding in the 2017 report was that Koreans have a narrow gap between their trust of news overall (23 percent) and their trust in the news they personally consume (27 percent). In most other countries surveyed, that gap was significantly higher (38 percent vs. 53 percent in the US, for example), reflecting the fact that people presumably seek out and follow news outlets that they find particularly trustworthy. In Korea, however, the popularity of news aggregation platforms like Naver and Daum mean that people often consume the news through a third party. According to the Oxford researchers, “The small difference between overall trust and trust in the news I use, relates to the heavy use of portals, where people often don’t remember specific news brands.”

Several major scandals in the last few years have dealt major blows to Korean trust in the news media. Former President Park Geun Hye was accused of using South Korea’s strict defamation laws to silence critics in the media, causing many moderate to left-leaning publications to self-censor out of fear of prosecution. The Park administration was also criticized for manipulating major public broadcasters KBS and MBC by appointing conservative pro-Park CEOs to both organizations. Employees of both companies have protested these appointments on and off for years, culminating in a months-long strike last fall that eventually resulted in the removal of the two leaders. After the announcement that their strike was successful, the KBS Union released a statement reading, “We have only just removed the biggest hurdle that stood in the way of KBS becoming a true broadcasting company of the people. Our goal isn’t just to make KBS what it was 10 years ago, our goal is to end the broadcasting company’s shameful history of servitude and submission to power. We will create a KBS that touches the lives of our citizens and reflects their opinions and ideas.”

These issues are not just limited to Park Geun Hye’s time, however. Earlier this year, an online blogger known as “Druking” was accused of using a computer program to “like” comments on news stories on Naver, thus artificially inflating certain comments to make sure that they were shown first in the comment section below political stories, as well as writing critical comments. Police say he used as many as 2,000 online IDs at a time to manipulate Naver comment sections. The blogger was recently indicted along with three former members of the Minjoo Party, who were also allegedly participating in online opinion rigging. Naver has since announced that they are overhauling their news portal to prevent similar issues in the future, and hope to make their process more transparent to regain the trust of the public.

In the Reporters Without Borders annual World Press Freedom Index, South Korea fell from 31st in the world in 2006 to 70th in 2016, largely on the back of these influence scandals. But in 2017 the country returned to 63rd, and then jumped 20 places to hit 43rd in 2018’s report. According to the index, the media’s work to expose Park’s corruption, as well as President Moon’s efforts to end the MBC and KBS strikes were the main reasons for this improvement.

The Moon administration has openly stated that they want to make these issues a priority. Right after his election last summer, Moon’s team pledged to bring Korea back to 30th in the ranking, and listed that pledge fourth among the incoming administration’s 100 policy priorities. Solving the MBC/KBS issue shows he is serious in following through on this promise. But issues remain – the structure that allows the government to appoint managers at these broadcasters are still in place, leaving open the possibility for future influence. Plus, South Korea’s defamation laws allow for harsh punishments for a range of political and non-political speech, and could still be used to silence opponents of the government. By eliminating these structural issues within South Korea’s free speech landscape, as well as considering whether the National Security Law which criminalizes viewing of a wide range of North Korea-related material, Moon can ensure that his commitment to free speech lasts long after he leaves the Blue House.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo by KEI Intern Minhee Lee

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