[VIEWPOINT]Portals must be regulated as mediaOpposition party lawmakers submitted a bill recently which would require Internet portals to take more responsibility as legitimate media. The portal sites have been criticized by the opposition camp, including right-wingers, as excessively pro-government. In that sense these actions can be regarded as a tactic to control the pro-government media. However, there is more to the movement to regulate the Internet portals.
Since the portal sites started providing news in the latter half of the 1990s, they have rapidly emerged as media giants. According to Korea Click, an Internet media research group, news on two of the major portal sites was accessed about 20 million times during the month of March this year. They had at least three times more visitors than the online news sites.
Portal sites offer numerous links, provide quick updates, allow interactivity and transcend time and space. The biggest merit of the news on these portals is its promptness and convenience.
Let’s say you want to search for Park Ji-sung, the soccer player who scored a goal in the World Cup match against France on June 19, on a portal site.
You can read all the news articles and various materials about the football star. The portals provide news, blogs and replies, similar to a department store of information. Thus they have gotten immense power.
However, the portal sites have a considerable negative influence, too, when they deliver the news which they have received from various media.
Last year, a civic group named the Citizens’ Coalition for Democratic Media surveyed the news articles on the main pages of major portal sites for 24 days.
The result showed that the titles of 85 percent of the articles were revised by the operators of the portals. About 45 percent of the main page entries were so-called soft news, such as sports, entertainment and culture. The articles on social issues were sultry as well.
At the time, the coalition warned that because the portal sites were reporting news as entertainment rather than delivering socially important issues, the social surveillance function of the media would diminish. That, in turn, would make people’s confidence about the media fall, jeopardizing democracy.
As the portal sites refuse to take responsibility for how they deliver news, the victims of their irresponsible reports have formed groups to fight against them. The portals exercise considerable influence in the way news articles are positioned. The news they like is positioned at visible spots and other news is crammed into corners.
Therefore, the Free Journalists Association, founded in April of this year in Seoul, criticized the portal news sites, saying they are essentially controlling the media in the Republic of Korea. This year, a book titled “2007 Presidential Election: The Decision is up to the Portal Sites,” was published.
President Roh Moo-hyun recently expressed concern over the news at portal sites, presumably for the same reason.
Strangely, however, the portals are not considered as genuine journalism. According to the press law, a news provider should produce at least 30 percent of the articles published weekly, which the portal sites do not do. Instead, the sites are categorized as added value businesses under the electronic communication business law of the Ministry of Information and Communication.
That’s where the problem lies. To the portal sites, the news is yet another means to attract visitors, not much different from any other content. It is only natural for the portal sites to prefer more provocative, eye-catching articles.
However, many media scholars say the portals function as news media.
The major function of the press is to produce, edit and publish the news. The portals handle two of those functions. The gatekeeping is the editing process and the change of the title is the publishing. It is enough for them to be regarded as decent journalism with just those two functions.
Most foreign portals only show the titles of the news articles, with links to the original media. They do not deliver articles directly. Now, we must say that portals are journalism and ask them to be accountable for what they do.
In 2003, the National Assembly discussed the need for a comprehensive media law in the Internet era, but that was it. While some might think that the ruling party wanted to protect the pro-ruling party media, it is wrong to blame the ruling party.
At this juncture, portals have no choice but to be on the side of the government. As broadcasting and communications merge, a new phenomenon of the separation of news production and circulation, as the portals do, is emerging.
To accommodate these new trends, a completely new system should be established. With that, we can expect sane journalism and civic culture to flourish.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Oh Day-young