SEOUL, Sept. 16 (Korea Bizwire) — The South Korean ruling party’s fresh accusation of the nation’s two major Internet portals over their “biased” news editing has surfaced as a hot-button issue, sparking concerns the party is trying to control the portals and influence public opinion ahead of next year’s parliamentary election.
The row flared up early this month when the Youido Institute, a think tank affiliated with the Saenuri Party, published a controversial report on analyzing how much local news articles supplied by web portals have adhered to the principle of being objective.
The study, based on the headlines of some 50,000 news pieces on Naver and Daum in the first half of this year, found that there were 10 times more news articles that portrayed the government and the ruling party “negatively” than reports criticizing the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD).
There were 1,025 news pieces that implied anti-government tendency and 147 others that were critical of the ruling party, whereas those against the opposition party came to 116.
Citing the findings, the Saenuri Party condemned the top two search engines for wielding influence with online news editing in favor of the opposition party, urging the chief executives of their operators — Naver Corp. and Daum Kakao Corp. — to appear at a session of the ongoing parliamentary audit of the government.
Saenuri Party leader Kim Moo-sung called on the portal operators “to take responsibility for their selection of news and edits, given their growing power as a news distributor.”
“Manipulation, prejudice or exaggeration has become a serious problem and some of these sensational and unethical portrayals offered by the news portals have gone over the limit,” he told reporters last week.’
Naver and Daum, the two major search engines where most South Koreans consume online news materials, have often been under fire for alleged engagement in arbitrary editing and layouts of news articles.
Some critics have accused Naver and its archrival, Daum Kakao, of changing headlines and placing sensational stories by minor online tabloids to entice readers into more clicks, which they say could eventually mislead the public.
The controversy heated up further as Kim Jong-deok, the minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said Friday that the ministry will consider forming an independent review committee, separate from the ones that are already run by Naver and Daum Kakao, to screen Internet news services.
The move by the ruling party has drawn a strong backlash from the portal industry and civic advocacy groups, who argue that the ruling party and government are attempting to put the portals under its control in order to sway public opinion in its favor in the run-up to the general election in April.
Kim Dong-won, an official at the People’s Coalition for Media Reform, a Seoul-based advocacy group, said “it reflects the government and ruling party’s outdated views on media and they’re trying to censor it by oppressing the public sphere.”
Shim Young-sup, a lecturer at the Korea University of Foreign Studies, questioned the credibility of the report, claiming that it didn’t stick to even the basic methods of conducting a study.
“It is problematic that the report has classified the articles as either positive, negative or neutral only by the headlines and not the content, even without giving enough explanation on what defines the three such categories,” he said at a forum held by local communication and broadcasting associations on Monday to discuss the issue.
In response to the partiality issue, Naver reiterated that it has made efforts to protect its credibility as a news distributing platform and will continue to do so.
Daum Kakao on Monday unveiled via a press release the process of its news selection. Its so-called “clustering” system sorts out up to 30,000 news articles sent daily by some 140 media outlet partners nationwide, and puts them into bundles using keywords before they’re published on their news portal pages.
The filtering process is computerized through machine learning — a function that works based on collected data — that helps it keep its news content impartial and diverse, the company said.
Other experts pointed out that the news portals need to bolster their efforts to prove that they’re not abusing the online news.
“Although Naver and Daum Kakao have together set up an independent committee to review their news pages, it seems to be not enough to convince the general public that they’re trying to do the right thing,” said Hwang Yong-suk, a media communications professor at Kunkuk University.
“It might be a good idea to also consider publishing a regular report of their own on neutrality issues as part of efforts to fulfill their social responsibility.”