January 27, 2018
I ask a journalist friend how we should respond to the precipitous decline in investigative reporting and disturbing replacement of a calm presentation of the facts about policy by sensationalist news about food, fashion, and the personalities of politicians.
But when I explained the superficiality of reporting these days, the response I received is that readers (or viewers), and especially the young, do not have the patience to read anything too long. That is to say that the audience for media demands materials that writing must be entertaining and short, lest they be bored by the details.
But the whole assumption behind the response seemed so completely wrong that I was left speechless. The fact that citizens lack the concentration to read long articles, or probe into the details of how their society works is not a reality, like sun rising in the East, to which the media must adjust.
Rather that lack of patience among our citizens, and above all among our youth, is the greatest crisis we face and makes it impossible for our society to function and for us to make responsible long-term policy. It is a social ill whose solution should be our primary concern.
Rather, we must change everything else in order to restore to our citizens the ability to concentrate and to consider complex issues without resorting to the stimulus of social network memes, video games or gaudy gag shows. It is not an interesting fact of modern society that citizens have trouble concentrating on significant content, or remembering names and dates. Rather the degeneration of media, and decline in the intellectual sophistication of average citizens, undermines the formulation and implementation of policy and if we follow this path, Korea will become ungovernable.
It seems as if we assume that journalism is a process by which a product is produced, not unlike a candy bar, and it must be marketed so that consumers will buy it. The goal, it seems, is that people purchase appealing media products and that this process produces profit for media corporations.
But the profit from media reporting should be the least insignificant aspect of newspapers, magazines and television broadcasts. Rather the media must serve above all to provide relevant, carefully-researched information about what is happening in local society, and around in the world, in a systematic manner to citizens. The news needs to not merely relate what famous people did, but also present the historical background for contemporary events and explain the structure and the nature of the institutions of our country. Unfamiliar terms must be defined and the articles should be accessible manner for a broad audience.
The media should take the time to explain in detail the historical background behind current society. We must create a culture in which citizens have the patience and concentration to engage in a serious discussion about what the significance of the past is for the present and future. The media assumes that all citizens know what the World Bank or the United Nations are and how the functions. But this is not an honest approach to journalism. Most people have only the vaguest idea of what these organizations do. Moreover, even for those with real experience, the institutions have changed considerably over the last five years, demanding that we consider their nature because it is relevant to the story.
Our focus should be on producing a culture in which citizens take the time to read and to think about what they read, on establishing a culture in which the significance of narratives, rather than their entertainment value, is the highest priority. We must insist on such a culture from kindergarten through old age.
If anything, media should demand that the reader challenge himself, that he rise to the occasion and embrace the difficulty of understanding our complex society. In light of the rise of anti-intellectualism, and the decline of scientific analysis, in our current approach to governance and economics, we need to create a society in which people slow down, think about what they read and have the mental leisure to take ruminate on complexity.
Populism is not the result of politicians, but rather is the product of a self-indulgent attitude of the citizen, combined with indifference toward fact. Populism is disturbingly anti-scientific even as it embraces glitzy technology.
Such a bread and circuses approach to political and economic dialog in the media renders our citizens unable to put grasp the subtle factors that drive change in our society and to formulate policy in response. Political leaders feel compelled to create drama for the media and the process of formulating and implementing policy becomes a sideshow.
The question is how we can create a culture for the nation that encourages concentration and that allows citizens to engage in a sophisticated dialog with each other on the critical issues of our time
Encouraging our citizens to be more intellectual, for example, by showing them images of educated and thoughtful people in the media around them who wrestle with complex ethical questions, is a first step. It must be clear to our youth that being an informed citizen, rather than wealthy or powerful, is the only way to live a meaningful life. We must be patient enough and brave enough to observe our world as it really is. E. M. Forester wrote, “Either life entails courage, or it ceases to be life.”
If we need to significantly decrease the role of cell phones and on-line social media in Korea in order to achieve this goal of a reading public that thinks deeply about what it reads, we should not hesitate for a moment.
It is far more critical for Korea to have citizens who can comprehend the profound and complex social and environmental issues that they face today than it is for Korea to be a leader in the sales of smartphones.
The time has come to for us to focus on the essentials of creating a healthy society, starting by creating a media whose purpose is to engage citizens in the most sophisticated of intellectual dialogues, demanding that they rise to the challenge, rather than the media treating them like ignorant children. We have a responsibility to avoid being distracted from the crisis of our age by short-term thrills.