• Heesang Yoo

Myths and Reality

Korean journalists and media are somewhat mysterious to multinational PR and marcom executives. Korea has some unique areas that may make non-Koreans quizzical about why they react the way they do sometimes. It has something to do with the overall Korean environment and society in general.

With the ever-growing economy and exposure to the external market, Korean journalists and media are constantly evolving for the better, as well as for the worse. There are some myths that are becoming increasingly non-myths these days, but there are also some areas still resistant to change and, in some cases, getting even worse.

Korean Journalists “Then” and “Now”

Nationalistic, unable to speak English well, quiet during press activities: These features may be typical generalizations of Korean journalists. Some of these aspects persist, while some have already disappeared completely. For example, Korean journalists are a bit nationalistic, and some are very nationalistic, but that tendency is easing continuously. Furthermore, it used to be true that Korean journalists don’t speak English very well because of the wide discrepancy between Korean and English. The overall level of their English proficiency has increased greatly, and now a lot of Korean journalists are reasonably proficient in both spoken and written English. They probably would like to have a professional interpreter when they interact with English-speaking spokespersons, not because they can’t speak to or understand them, but due to 1) the simple reason of efficiency and 2) the fear of not being completely understood. There is an expression in Korean that means “silence is golden,” and meaning it tends to be better to not be too talkative in Korea. It may sound a bit “sexist,” but men have been called “too girly” when they talk a lot. Educated Korean men are raised to not talk too much. The Korean word for “gentle” literally means “not young.” Traditionally, regardless of sex, it is better to not talk too much and to keep calm in Korean society. It has probably affected the overall behavior of Korean journalists, especially men, but it is disappearing. Now a lot of Korean journalists speak proactively, though not even close to the level of journalists from other countries.

Confirm, Double-check, Fact-check

Confirming, double-checking, and fact-checking information are becoming more and more uncommon in Korea’s media scene. In the past, whenever we distributed even a press release, most Korean journalists made a confirmation call to us when they had questions, wanted to double-check something, or needed additional information. The trend of moving away from these actions started happening over a decade ago due to some reasons the media industry is facing now. First of all, Korean publications now depend heavily on ad-revenue; however, the revenues from ads have been plummeting. This is not only related to Korean media, but Korean media’s overwhelming dependence on ad revenue instead of subscriptions has made the situation even worse. Most Korean media is struggling, and the situation is showing no signs of improvement. In addition, Korean media used to have an abundance of journalists on hand, and they covered only a certain number of stories on a given day. However, the overall number of journalists has dropped significantly, regardless of the publication, and now Korean journalists need to file multiple stories every day on top of performing administrative jobs. The ever-growing presence of online news has made these journalists wear a lot more hats than they are supposed to be wearing, making them really busy. Now they don’t have enough time to confirm information or fact-check, not to mention double-check. The responsibility to do fact-checking and double-checking also lies with senior journalists or section heads. However, the number of senior journalists and section heads has also decreased significantly because publications need to do almost everything themselves to cut costs in order to stay afloat. Furthermore, there used to be a “street edition” of most dailies in Korea, but that is no longer the case. There were two reasons for printing a street edition. The primary reason was to deliver papers to cities and counties outside of Seoul overnight so that they could be delivered to households or placed into newsstands on time. The other reason was to check corporate readers’ overall response and make last-minute changes, if necessary. Most publications eliminated their street edition not only to cut costs, but also because it’s no longer necessary thanks to developments in printing and the delivery system. A number of business dailies continue to publish a street edition, but it no longer works as a way to find errors and make necessary last-minute changes.

Gentler and Kinder

In the past, Korean journalists were known to be quite strict, critical, and sometimes downright stubborn. It has not changed much with regard to journalists in some sections of daily publications, but it has started to change gradually with journalists mostly dealing with economics and information technology. An increasing number of journalists are now more approachable and flexible than before due to expanding globalization and their openness to different ways of thinking that come from overseas. Korea as a whole is a very structured and seniority-based society, and the same applies to journalists and media in general. However, they are progressively becoming more flexible, as well as easier to contact, interact with and communicate with. It does not mean that the whole environment has changed to look more like what is happening in other parts of the world. A certain level of understanding of procedures and protocols used to be required to interact with these journalists and media the first few times of dealing with them. Now the journalists and media are much more approachable, so the previous level of understanding and effort is not really needed anymore.

Understanding these unique aspects of the Korean media scene will help you when you are planning to conduct PR or media relations in Korea.

This article is also published at author's (Heesang Yoo) LinkedIn account.

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