Polarized Embrace: South Korean Media Coverage of Human Rights, 1990-2016

Oct 5, 2017 | 4:00 PM - 5:30 PM

Prof. Koo Jeong-Woo (Department of Sociology, Sungkyunkwan University; HYI Visiting Scholar 2015-16)
Chair: Paul Y. Chang (Associate Professor of Sociology, Harvard University)

Co-sponsored by the Korea Institute

Reporting about human rights has received considerable attention in social science for the last few decades. Scholars analyzed such monitoring reports as the US State Department’s annual Country Reports, as well as media coverage of human rights. This scholarly engagement has made great strides in depicting the evolution of human rights. The previous research, however, has centralized a particular set of rights, i.e., civil and political rights, rather than reveal persuasively the multi-faceted nature of the concept. Consequently, scholarly works using such informative tools have yielded a biased understanding of how human rights have evolved. Furthermore, past studies have devoted scant attention to the role of political slant of reporting agencies in selecting and framing the topics and issues discussing human rights. We offer new theoretical and analytical solutions to such limits and seek to contribute to a deeper understanding of how human rights discourse evolves.
We first construct a framework useful in categorizing the spectrum of human rights and then analyze the newly compiled corpus data comprising more than 114,000 South Korean newspaper articles—both conservative and progressive leaning—referencing the term, human rights. South Korea spearheaded a remarkable globalization during the 1990s and, as part of it, adopted various human rights institutions—including a government-sponsored human rights commission—in the following decade. Consequently, the country shifted from a mediocre country with a tainted human rights profile to a country with a record closely paralleling those in the West. We present South Korean media coverage as a case illustrating an interesting path of the evolution of human rights and thus offering insight on explicating complexities concerning how human rights evolve.
Our analysis led us to reach several primary conclusions. First, South Korean media coverage shows that human rights as a cultural symbol expanded tremendously in the country, consistent with global expansion of human rights during the 1990s and 2000s. Second, there existed remarkable shifts among multiple categories and topics of human rights during the study period, 1990-2016: Initially, civil and political rights dominated, yet gradually receded as economic, social, and cultural, and minority rights moved to the forefront. Third, we found substantial variation in categories and topics of attention between conservative and progressive news sources: Progressive news sources allocated substantially more discussion to diverse categories and topics than conservative new outlets. These core findings lend support to imagery of a polarized embrace in which human rights are diffused with diverse and rich spectrum, yet in a highly polarized manner.

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