South Korean women still face an uphill battle in the news media

By Jeyup S. Kwaak

When a veteran South Korean journalist applied for a cub reporter position in the mid-1990s at one of South Korea’s top newspapers, a journalism job was one of the most coveted, on a par with a lawyer, a doctor, or a civil servant. 

Armed with deep pockets and prestige, newsrooms were awash with elite university graduates. A hierarchical corporate culture derived from the country’s mandatory military service reigned, much as it did in the country’s political and business worlds. 

Recruitment was openly discriminatory, however. Job postings stated that female candidates above a certain age were ineligible. Women were considered too frail to cover disasters or other “rough assignments,” according to the journalist,  now an editor in his 50s, who was not authorized to speak on behalf of his organization. 

“That changed only after female colleagues spoke up for change,” he said.

Two-and-a-half decades after he joined the press corps, South Korean news media appear to be at a crossroads. Public trust in news media has remained low, ranking towards the bottom in international polls. Senior leadership has little diversity, a homogeneous group of older, able-bodied men who graduated from the top-three schools, which critics cite as a key reason behind the erosion of trust and relevance.

Many people show little loyalty to media outlets, consuming news through search engines and aggregators rather than individual websites. The trend, solidified over the last two decades, has led to a situation where digital-native 20-somethings are citing the No. 1 portal site Naver as the most trusted news source above press organizations, according to a 2021 Korea Press Foundation study.

Journalists and experts say that aggregators’ continued stranglehold on news distribution has led to an excessive focus on speed over quality and accuracy. Even unverified gossip on online bulletin boards becomes fodder for clickbait, which soon is matched by rival outlets. Stories later deemed too inflammatory are pulled down without a correction. Readers  find themselves lost in a flood of almost identical stories that contain little new information. 

The leaders have essentially outsourced their online infrastructure to the aggregators, and many media outlets still lack a genuine strategy for online distribution today, says Kim Sun-ho, a researcher on newsroom diversity at the Korea Press Foundation, a government body. “A lot of reporters admit there is a problem, but that awareness hasn’t snowballed into concerted action. Senior leadership has to act to speed up the pace of change.”

Against this grim backdrop, compounded by dwindling ad revenue, newsrooms have yet to engage in a meaningful discussion on diversity, equity, and inclusion and  its impact on coverage, journalists and experts say. Still the organizations have made some progress, especially in terms of gender, as more women have raised their voices.

Many working journalists are reluctant to comment on the issue on the record.  Most of the  eight journalists of varied ranks and experience (five female and three male), who were interviewed for this article requested anonymity as they were not authorized to speak about their current and/or former employers.

Though South Korea is known for dynamic and often rapid shifts – from economic development and democratization to fashion and music – the country’s corporate culture has been slower to evolve. One of the reasons that experts cite is strong labor protection.  

Thanks to near-bulletproof job security, the generation of men who became journalists when few women were working in the field continues to control newsrooms.

“(They are) the least likely bunch to have been treated unfairly or experienced discrimination,” says a male reporter who recently left a major daily. 

A 2019 survey by the Journalists Association of Korea, the country’s largest journalist organization, says male journalists outnumber their female counterparts 3-to-1, though women hold only 7% of editor-in-chief positions, according to a 2020 Korea Press Foundation study.

Journalists come from a homogeneous educational background, too, which critics say make them less in tune with social issues outside the elite-educated upper-middle class.. Nine out of 10 print journalists have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 43% of the working-age population. 

Male journalists would seem to turn to male experts to discuss issues. More than half of the experts invited to speak on TV news were aged 50-69, according to a 2019 Journalists Association survey, whereas only a quarter of them were women. This imbalance affects the topics journalists decide to cover.

Male journalists believe that economic development and job creation are the most important issues to study, according to the 2020 Foundation study. Most female journalists, however,  cited social tensions and discrimination as the most worthy of coverage. 

“The same older male producers keep referring to the same older male sources and don’t bother to expand the pool,” says a female TV news network reporter.  

Such an attitude has often led to misinformation, some journalists say. But few people object. 

“For the Koreans who were formed by the standard education system and the corporate culture, it’s hard to be an agent for change,” says the recently resigned male reporter. “They know that people who stick their neck out usually don’t survive in a place where the group trumps the individual.” 

Ethnic minorities and immigrants also are rarely found in newsrooms and sexual minorities seldom come out publicly at work in South Korea with resulting disbalance in coverage of those communities.

Crimes involving North Korean refugees, ethnic Korean Chinese people and migrant workers are  popular clickbait items, although statistics show the crime rate among these groups is significantly lower than that of native South Koreans. 

Coverage of LGBTQ people and people with HIV/AIDS tends to be fueled by the stereotype of promiscuity. 

“Editors aren’t very interested in covering issues involving the rights of minorities,” says a female politics reporter at another TV network, a trend that also extends to the ongoing presidential election campaign. 

The road ahead appears murky, though signs of change have emerged. 

In late 2019, public broadcaster KBS appointed Lee So-jeong as the evening news anchor, the first time a woman had taken the slot. Ratings jumped, and her bulletin has stayed at the top since. In recent years, some organizations have added a dedicated gender desk or committee, as tensions between the sexes have become more pronounced among young people. 

The 2016 murder of young woman in Seoul by a schizophrenic man sparked a sizable feminist protest and a fiery debate about whether it constituted a misogynistic hate crime. Earlier this year, a presidential candidate’s appearance on a feminist YouTube channel caused an uproar both within and outside his party.

Agnes Jang, the first gender editor appointed last year at the left-of-center daily Kyunghyang Shinmun, says the Seoul murder spurred internal discussions about attitudes towards gender. Last year, her newsroom published a stylebook to root out usage of discriminatory and defamatory language. 

Although Jang’s organization is an exception in the industry, it now takes gender balance into account when inviting outside opinion writers and it has diversified the reader feedback groups in terms of age, sex and occupation.

“There are difficulties in communicating across generational gaps,” says Jang. “But the notion that ‘juniors must follow seniors’ lead’ has been substantially eroded.” A bi-monthly committee meeting offers reporters a chance to challenge editorial decisions, she says. “I think the door for dialogue and change is open.”