South Korea's media ecosystem is characterised by strong broadcasters, a newspaper sector struggling to adapt to digital change, and low trust in the news. Powerful Korean-owned portals dominate the distribution of news online but media companies are trying to change that by experimenting with new business models and formats.
News organisations and CEOs, in their New Year speeches, have increasingly been using the phrase ‘post-portal’ to describe a world where they are less dependent on third-party aggregators such as Naver and Daum. Media companies and academics have been discussing the possibility of setting up an alternative portal that would offers similar levels of convenience but better incentives for quality journalism to thrive.
One key challenge to any such plan is the low level of audience trust in the news media, which is among the lowest in our global survey at just 28%. Detailed Korea Press Foundation (KPF) research, based on a survey of 60,000 people, has also shown that the news media score consistently badly for concepts like trust and fairness, but do a bit better in terms of perceived independence and also the influence that the news media have on society. Respondents gave particularly low marks to the performance of the Korean media in representing the socially underprivileged, monitoring the government and public figures, and keeping an eye on corporate activities.1
Media outlets continue to experiment with paid subscription models – as well as short-form video production – to better respond to changing audience and business trends. After the two major newspapers – Chosun Ilbo and JoongAng Ilbo – introduced ‘login wall’ in 2021, Korea Economic Daily and broadcaster SBS also jumped on the bandwagon. In October 2022, JoongAng Ilbo rolled out a full-fledged paid premium subscription model titled The JoongAng Plus. The ‘newspaper of record’ is pushing for a dual-track strategy where general news remains distributed through portals free of charge, while premium content is offered only through paid subscriptions. Other newspapers such as Maeil Business Newspaper, Kyunghyang Shinmun, and Hankook Ilbo are reviewing paid subscription models while closely watching JoongAng Ilbo’s move.
Meanwhile, a host of media outlets, especially TV networks with a competitive edge in video content, are investing heavily in short-form video news for TikTok and other social media platforms. Only a small proportion (4%) use TikTok for news, despite the strong attention it draws outside Korea. But short-form video is also being strongly promoted by YouTube, which has grown rapidly in recent years as a news platform. Over half our sample use YouTube (53%) for news each week – up 9 percentage points on last year.
The big TV news networks, YTN, KBS, SBS, MBC, and JTBC, all produce bespoke video for social platforms where reporters explain news items that are likely to attract the attention of the younger generation with a more informal and lighter tone. On other occasions they re-edit television content on topics ranging from accidents and disasters to politics. Newspapers have been slower to invest as they often lack video production and editing skills.
On the evening of 29 October 2022, a number of Halloween partygoers squeezed into a narrow alley in the Itaewon neighbourhood of Seoul, resulting in a deadly crowd crush. In a previous disaster – when the Sewol ferry sank in 2014 and many people were killed – Korean media reported wrongly that ‘all passengers have been rescued’. This resulted from the media’s practice, at the time, of uncritical reporting of government or company statements without fact-checking.
In the wake of the disaster, media organisations such as the Journalists Association of Korea drew up a set of guidelines for reporting disasters. In the case of the Halloween accident, research shows that the media were seen to have improved their practices by mostly refraining from intruding excessively on the privacy of victims or showing overly graphic images or videos. However, some local media were criticised for sensational and provocative coverage of the initial stages of the crowd crush. The Korea Press Ethics Commission gave an official warning to some media outlets for repeatedly showing graphic scenes of the crowd crush, including videos of people performing CPR on the victims.
The Itaewon accident has also highlighted the psychological damage that journalists who witness traumatic scenes can suffer in the course of field reporting. Some reporters covering the disaster have complained of health problems since the incident and the Journalists Association of Korea has been offering extra advice and psychological support.
Senior Researcher, Korea Press Foundation
News consumption in Korea is mostly reliant on online portals such as Naver and Daum, as well as a competitive broadcast sector, with print media becoming less influential over time. Social video platforms such as YouTube have become much more important for the discovery and consumption of news.
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Trust in news overall
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Koreans' trust in the news has been stuck at a low level, with just 28% of respondents saying that they ‘trust most news most of the time’. The most trusted individual news brand was MBC, one of the public broadcasters in South Korea, which showed a significant year-on-year increase. This was followed by other major broadcasters, such as YTN, KBS, SBS, and JTBC. Most major newspapers have lower levels of trust.