[Column] How to win back readers who’ve turned to YouTube for news

Posted on : 2024-05-16 16:57 KST Modified on : 2024-05-16 16:57 KST
Developing an ethics of care and attentive listening will be key to the future of journalism
Korean print newspapers. (Hankyoreh file photo) 
Korean print newspapers. (Hankyoreh file photo) 

By Seo Soo-min, professor of communications at Sogang University 

Is there anything wrong with watching news outlets that conform to one’s political views — conservatives watching conservative media, and progressives watching progressive media? 

Numerous studies by political scientists show that huddling inside a political echo chamber without listening to people from the other side undermines democracy by promoting misunderstanding of people with other ideas and leaving less space for compromise. Observers familiar with two-party political systems yearn for the time when there were more swing voters open to messages from both right and left and are concerned about the disappearance of such voters. 

Media scholars paint a more complicated picture. While they do acknowledge the importance of listening to the other side in a way that transcends partisanship, academic studies in the field show that people’s opinions are rarely changed by conversations or articles that express opposing views. Diana Mutz, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, demonstrated that people who are exposed to opposing political opinions are actually driven by cognitive dissonance to reinforce their original opinions. 

The analysis is even more complicated for scholars who research partisan media consumption in Korea. While the tendency for people to avoid legacy news media and rely on social media is also observed in other countries, the ascendancy of specific platforms (such as YouTube) is especially noticeable in Korea. 

According to a study by KAIST professors Kwon Oh-seong, Han Ji-young and Kim Chang-sook that was presented at last week's Korean Society for Journalism and Communication Studies spring conference, this kind of partisan media consumption has recently been more conspicuous on the left than on the right, a tendency that appears to be impacted by antipathy for the current administration and the conservative press. 

Some scholars discuss the positive impact of partisan media consumption. Psychologists talk about “affective satisfaction,” such as the gratification that viewers get from shoot-from-the-hip news coverage laced with the kind of juicy expressions, including profanities, that are never seen in more “dignified” mainstream media. 

 Going beyond the psychological effects for the individual, another positive function of partisan media consumption is the sense of belonging gained from interacting in the comments section with people holding the same opinions. The high-quality partisan news media that have developed in such regions as Northern Europe go beyond the interests of any particular party or professional group and provide a foundation for increasing the qualitative level of social dialogue. 

But the fact is that in most countries, such as Korea and the US, people are flocking to low-quality extreme media outlets. Is there no solution for this? 

Susan Robinson, a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, came up with an intriguing experiment. She arranged conversations between (to adapt the experiment for a Korean context) a Hankyoreh reporter and a follower of far-right YouTube channels who has never read the Hankyoreh and has no intention of doing so. The reporter is asked to pose questions like “What are we getting wrong in articles about people like you?” and “What is needed to restore trust”? and then to listen attentively without any rebuttals. 

Readers from both the left and right who spoke with reporters were full of rage. They said the groups they belonged to were presented negatively or simplistically in media on the other side of the spectrum. The consistent response of these readers was that only the loudest people are featured, and ordinary people such as themselves are never represented. 

But the shocking result of that study appeared in the poll conducted after the interview was over. Two out of every three interviewees, who had been selected for the survey because of their distrust and hatred either for progressive or conservative media, said that their trust for the reporter and media in question had risen after the interview, while one out of every three even said they would consider subscribing to the media in question. Simply having reporters listen to these people’s stories was enough to greatly boost trust in the media outlet. 

What this study shows is that distrust in media representing an opposing perspective and partisan media consumption is rooted in the feeling of being disrespected. Robinson proposes an “ethic of care” as a new journalistic principle that can overcome distrust in the media and picky media consumption. That means applying the values of interest, responsibility, capability, consideration and solidarity emphasized by University of Minnesota Professor Emerita Joan Tronto to the relationship between the press and readers. 

In short, nimbly responding to and engaging with the needs of various communities of readers is the future of journalism. 

In the end, I regard care and attentive listening as the future of journalism. Those who have gone to therapy know that healing begins with the mere act of listening, even if the therapist doesn’t say a single word. Media outlets’ efforts to win back readers who have defected to YouTube must include care and begin with attentive listening. 

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr

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