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date: 22 May 2017

Climate Change Communication in South Korea

Summary and Keywords

Climate change is a significant issue in South Korea, and the news media are particularly important because they can play a central role in communicating information about climate change, a complex phenomenon on which the public in general lacks expert knowledge.

The amount of climate change coverage increased in South Korean newspapers until 2009 and started to decline thereafter. The increase seems to have been driven primarily by international news and domestic politics. Until 2007, the increase in news coverage—as well as its short-term peaks—coincided with major international events, such as the releases of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. After 2007, the amount was affected not only by international events but also by domestic politics, such as the Lee administration’s “Low Carbon, Green Growth” policy, which became an important part of the national agenda. In terms of the nature of news coverage, newspapers represented the perspectives of climate change believers for the most part, while it was relatively hard to find skeptics’ arguments. News stories relied heavily on such authoritative international figures as the IPCC for information, which often led to conclusions that climate change is real and that human activities are primarily responsible. There are also political reasons for this point of view. President Lee, and his successor, President Park, maintained strong and ambitious environmental policies. As an important part of the president’s agenda, these policies might have affected the nature of news coverage, setting the tone of news articles in favor of strong environmental regulations. Lack of scientific expertise among news writers seems to affect the nature of news coverage as well. The lack of expert knowledge has often resulted in heavy reliance on press releases, newsworthy events, and scandals, instead of providing in-depth analyses of scientific backgrounds in climate change reporting. Another consequence was a heavy reliance on international news. The largest number of climate change articles was found as part of international news, while such articles rarely appeared in the science sections.

Keywords: climate change, global warming, South Korea, communication, newspapers, news media

Introduction

Climate change has been a prominent issue in South Korea, and the public seems to perceive much greater risks compared to people in other countries. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project Poll in 2010 (Pew Research Center, 2010), about 68% of South Koreans believed that global warming was a “very serious” problem, which was fourth-highest among the 23 countries surveyed. The average of the 23 countries was 53%, and only about 37% of Americans, 46% of the French, and 41% of the Chinese believed the same. This high level of public concern may not be very surprising given the impacts of rapid climate change that South Koreans have experienced for decades. The average temperature has increased 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C) in the past 100 years, which represents twice the global average of 0.74°C (Lee & Oh, 2010). The winter weather has decreased by about 30 days when compared to the 1920s, while the spring and summer weather has increased by around 20 days, which often led to extreme heat resulting in more than 2,000 estimated mortalities between 1994 and 2005 (Government of the Republic of Korea, 2003).

The rapid pace and significant impacts of climate change may not fully explain the high level of public concern in South Korea, however. While there are many environmental factors that can explain the concern, the level of perceived risks is often socially constructed and not always based on actual statistics (Johnson & Covello, 1987). Thus, the focus here is primarily on the communication aspect; how the issue has been presented in the news media is examined by reviewing the available scholarly literature on climate change coverage in South Korea. News media can play a central role in communicating climate change information (Schmidt, Ivanova, & Schäfer, 2013), and this role is particularly important given that the issue represents a complex phenomenon on which the public in general lacks expert knowledge (Schäfer, 2012). Research shows that news media are a key factor in terms of raising public awareness of and concern about climate change (Sampei & Aoyagi-Usui, 2009). The media can also function as a central forum for climate change debates, from which the audiences can make scientific, political, and ethical evaluations of the issue (Schneider, Nullmeier, & Hurrelmann, 2007).

The findings from public opinion polls are reviewed to assess South Koreans’ perceived risks of climate change, perceptions about the causes (anthropogenic vs. natural causes), evaluations of the government’s effort to address the issue, and how willing they are to engage in mitigation efforts (the key findings from the different opinion polls are summarized in Table 1). A review of content analysis studies provides a detailed description of how South Korean newspapers have presented climate change. More specifically, an attempt is made to explain (a) how the volume of news coverage has changed over the years, (b) who primarily wrote climate change articles and where in the newspaper the articles were placed, and (c) what the key talking points and story tones were in the news coverage. This review of news coverage is compared with the findings from other countries in an attempt to explain what factors might have influenced the way climate change is communicated in South Korean newspapers. A more comprehensive review would contain content analyses of other forms of media, such as television news, online news, and social media. Unfortunately, however, not a single published study in South Korea that examined other forms of media could be found.

As Moser (2010) has pointed out, while public awareness of climate change is reaching saturation at least in many developed countries, the public’s perceived urgency and importance of the issue tends to vary across nations, and understanding of the reasons remains limited. Looking closely into the cross-national differences in climate change coverage between South Korea and other countries will be useful in terms of explaining the international variations in public opinion. This will be particularly so, as Schäfer (2012) points out, given that the majority of the existing analyses of climate change communication have involved European or North American countries.

Perceived Risks and Public Opinion

Perceived Risks

According to the 2007 World Public Opinion poll (see Table 1), about 67% of South Koreans answered that global warming was a “critical threat,” while only 4% believed it was not (Council on Foreign Relations, 2011). This number was the third highest among the 10 countries surveyed, suggesting that South Koreans on average are more likely to perceive the risks of climate change than people in other countries. In a more recent survey administered by the South Korean government in 2013, about 97% of the respondents answered that they were aware of the issue of climate change, and 94% responded that it posed a “serious problem” (Lee & Yoon, 2014). South Koreans, however, do not seem to believe that climate change poses a greater risk than other science-related issues. According to a national survey in 2011 (Chang, Kim, Shim, & Ma, 2016), the perceived risk of climate change scored 5.0 on a seven-point scale, which was significantly higher than the risk of nanotechnology (4.6), but slightly lower than GMOs (genetically modified organisms) (5.1) and significantly lower than nuclear energy (5.5) and medical malpractices (5.7). The same survey also indicated that South Koreans tended to perceive the effects of climate change as long-term and delayed rather than short-term or immediate. Perceived risk for the next generation scored 5.8 on the same seven-point scale, and this number was significantly higher than the current risks to self (5.0) and to others (5.2).

Causes of Climate Change

According to a 2007 BBC poll (see Table 1), about 91% of South Koreans answered that human activity was a significant cause of climate change, while only 7% answered it was not. This number was the third highest among the 21 countries surveyed, whose average was 79% (Council on Foreign Relations, 2011). More recently, in a national survey in 2011 (Bak & Huh, 2012), about two-thirds of the respondents agreed that greenhouse gases were responsible for global warming and that climate change was not a part of a natural process, indicating that the majority of South Koreans believe that climate change is caused by human activities. The same majority answered that they would be able to successfully adapt to climate change, suggesting that South Koreans are in general optimistic about the ability to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Evaluation of the Government’s Effort

While South Koreans perceive the government as having the most responsibility in addressing climate change (Chang et al., 2016), they do not seem to be very satisfied with the government’s efforts. In the 2009 World Public Opinion poll (Program on International Policy Attitudes, 2009), about 81% of South Koreans answered that the government should place a higher priority on addressing climate change than it did (see Table 1). When it comes to the evaluation of how high a priority the government currently places on addressing climate change (1 = not a priority at all; 10 = very high priority), South Koreans indicated a mean score of 4.6, which was lower than the average (5.1) of the 22 countries surveyed.

Mitigation Effort

Although South Koreans are concerned about climate change, studies report that they are in general passive and less willing than people in other countries in terms of taking actual actions to solve the problem. According to the 2007 BBC poll, while about 48% of South Koreans answered that it was necessary to take major and immediate steps, a similar number (45%) answered that it was necessary to take only modest steps over the coming years (Council on Foreign Relations, 2011). The 48% was far below the average (65%) of the 21 countries surveyed. In the same BBC poll, only about 5% of South Koreans agreed that it would be definitely necessary to increase the cost of energy in order to encourage individuals and the industry to use less. Also, only 28% of South Koreans believed that it would be necessary for individuals to change their lifestyle to reduce the amount of carbon emissions. This was the second lowest among the 21 countries surveyed. This reluctance has been reported in other international comparison studies, which consistently show that South Koreans are in general somewhat reluctant to take immediate and binding measures to address problems caused by climate change (Bak & Huh, 2012; Choi, 2008).

Table 1. Climate change opinion polls: South Korea and international comparisons.

Poll

Survey Questions

South Korea

Average of All Countries Surveyed

2007 World Public Opinion Poll (10 countries)

Please select whether you see global warming as …

A critical threat

67%

54%

An important but not critical threat

29%

27%

Not an important threat at all

4%

10%

DK/NA

0%

8%

South Korean Government Poll 2013 (Lee & Yoon, 2014) (South Korea only)

Aware of the issue of climate change

97%

-

Climate change poses a serious problem

94%

-

A national poll 2011 (Chang et al., 2016) (South Korea only)

How much risk do you think each of the following poses to yourself? (1=not at all; 7=very much)

Climate Change

5.0

-

Nanotechnology

4.6

-

GMO

5.1

-

Nuclear Energy

5.5

-

Medical Malpractice

5.7

-

How much risk do you think each of the following poses to the next generation? (1=not at all; 7=very much)

Climate Change

5.8

-

Nanotechnology

5.0

-

GMO

5.8

-

Nuclear Energy

5.9

-

Medical Malpractice

4.8

-

BBC Poll 2007 (Council on Foreign Relations, 2011) (21 countries)

Do you believe that human activity, including industry and transportation, is or is not a significant cause of climate change?

Human activity is a significant cause

91%

79%

Human activity is NOT a significant cause

7%

14%

DK/NA

2%

6%

Would you say that you believe that:

It is necessary to take major steps starting very soon.

48%

65%

It is necessary to take modest steps over coming years.

45%

25%

It is not necessary to take any steps

5%

6%

DK/NA

2%

5%

How necessary is it to increase the cost of the types of energy that most cause climate change, such as coal and oil/petrol?

Definitely necessary

5%

27%

Probably necessary

44%

34%

Probably not necessary

37%

20%

Definitely not necessary

12%

14%

DK/NA

2%

6%

How necessary is it for individuals to make changes in their life style and behavior in order to reduce the amount of climate change gasses they produce?

Definitely necessary

28%

46%

Probably necessary

58%

37%

Probably not necessary

13%

9%

Definitely not necessary

1%

4%

DK/NA

1%

4%

A national poll 2011 (Bal & Huh, 2012) (South Korea only)

Greenhouse gasses are responsible for global warming.

68%

-

Climate change is not part of natural process.

62%

-

The seriousness of climate change is not exaggerated.

78%

-

People will be able to successfully adopt to climate change.

60%

-

World Public Opinion Poll 2009 (22 countries)

Should your government place a higher priority on addressing climate change than it does?

Should have a higher priority

81%

60%

Has placed the right priority

13%

18%

Should have a lower priority

6%

12%

DK/NA

1%

10%

How high a priority does the government place on addressing climate change? (0=not a priority at all; 10=a very high priority)

4.6

5.1

Climate Change Policies and Mitigation Efforts

The South Korean government has maintained ambitious climate change policies and displayed to the international community a strong commitment to addressing global climate problems (Lee & Oh, 2010). For example, in 2009, South Korea proposed a plan at Copenhagen to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 30% of the BAU (Business-As-Usual) baseline by 2020. The Park Geun-Hye administration raised the bar in 2015 by announcing its plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 37% of the BAU baseline by 2030. In 2008, then-President Lee Myung-Bak introduced the “Low Carbon, Green Growth” policy as the core of his vision for economic growth and as an important part of the national policy agenda (Lee, 2009). The green growth policy includes three specific goals: (a) climate change mitigation and energy independence, (b) the greening of economic growth, and (c) the enhancement of quality of life and international cooperation (Lee & Oh, 2010).

Despite these ambitious plans, the actual reduction of greenhouse gas emissions has been somewhat disappointing. Since the last decade of the 20th century, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in South Korea has increased about 2.4 times, from about 296 MtCO2eq in 1990 to about 698MtCO2eq in 2011, which recorded the highest rate of increment among the 34 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries (Park & Sohn, 2012). South Korea was also the world’s 9th and 7th largest CO2-emitting country in 2008 and 2012 (Lee & Yoon, 2014). According to German Watch’s 2014 report (Burck, Marten, & Bals, 2014), South Korea ranked 53th of the 58 countries evaluated with the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI), suggesting that the country has not been performing very well in dealing with climate change effectively or aggressively. South Korea’s underperformance indicates that its plans may have been unrealistically ambitious, but it also raises question about the government’s will and ability to address climate change challenges.

Climate Change Communication in South Korean Newspapers

News media can influence public perceptions of an issue through their agenda setting and framing functions by selecting what will be covered and which frames will be used in the news. The agenda setting theory (McCombs & Shaw, 1972) suggests that an increased quantity of news attention can make an issue more prominent among the public, and research has indicated that increased coverage of certain health and scientific issues is correlated with public perceptions of increased risks of the same issues (Combs & Slovic, 1979). In the context of climate change, research shows that a significant quantity of news coverage can increase public attention toward the issue, which can in turn promote greater issue knowledge, problem awareness, and perceived importance (Sampei & Aoyagi-Usui, 2009; Soroka, 2002; Stamm, Clark, & Eblacas, 2000). Supporting the idea that the media function to shape not only the public but also the policy agenda (Berkowitz, 1992), research has also reported that news coverage can affect how politicians prioritize the issue of climate change (Newig, 2004). In addition to the quantitative measure, the qualitative nature of news coverage can be a critical indicator for social problem construction. As part of the qualitative nature, news framing provides an interpretive framework, with which the audience can make sense of relevant events and understand what is specifically at issue (Trumbo, 1996). Studies have demonstrated that selective uses of frames can affect the public’s perceived severity of climate change (Spence & Pidgeon, 2010), emotional reactions to the issue (Myers, Nisbet, Maibach, & Leiserowitz, 2012), and support for environmental regulations (Roh & Lee, 2013).

A number of content analysis studies are reviewed to see how South Korean newspapers have presented climate change science and politics. Synthesizing the content analysis findings, more specifically, an attempt is made to explain (a) how much news attention has been paid to the issue of climate change (the amount of news coverage), (b) who primarily wrote climate change articles and where the articles were placed (the source and placement of news coverage), and (c) what were the key talking points in presenting the issue (the nature of news coverage). This review is compared with the findings from other countries in order to provide a better understanding of what factors might have affected the way climate change has been covered in South Korean newspapers.

The Amount of News Coverage

Content analysis studies in South Korea all indicate that the amount of climate change coverage increased until 2009 and showed a noticeable decline thereafter. Kim, Cho, and Kim’s (2011) analysis of three national daily newspapers (Chosun Ilbo, Joonang Daily, and Hankyoreh Shinmun), for example, found that the number of climate change articles increased from 162 in 2000 (about 0.15 articles per newspaper each day) to 956 in 2008 (about 0.87 articles per newspaper each day). According to another study of three daily newspapers (Chosun Ilbo, Dong-A Ilbo, and Hankyoreh Shinmun), climate change news coverage increased from about 175 articles in 1997 to more than 650 in 2007, though the number dropped to about 220 in 2012 (Lim, Park, & Lee, 2013). Lee, Hong, Kim, Hong, and Lee (2013) also estimated that there were as many as 254 articles in the month of December 2009 in a total of nine newspapers (Chosun Ilbo, Dong-A Ilbo, Hankook Ilbo, Hangyoreh Shinmun, Joongang Daily, Korea Economic Daily, Kukmin Ilbo, Kyunghyang Shinmun, and Maeil Business News) (about 0.94 articles per newspaper each day). Similarly, Lee (2009) found that the number of newspaper articles about the issue of CO2 emissions trading had also increased significantly. In 2005, there were a total of 42 articles about the issue in four daily newspapers (Chosun Ilbo, Dong-A Ilbo, Kyunghyang Shinmun, and Hankyoreh Shinmun), and the number went up to 147 in 2008. The amount of news coverage over the years reported in different studies is presented in Figure 1.

Climate Change Communication in South KoreaClick to view larger

Figure 1. The amount of news coverage over the years.

While the climate change coverage in South Korea indicated a trend of increase in general, there have been some fluctuations over the years, and the amount seemed to peak in certain years (see Figure 1). For example, there was a large peak in 2007, when climate change became a prominent part of international news (Lim et al., 2013). In that year, the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) was released, which concluded that global warming was an unequivocal fact and that human activities were the major cause. The fluctuations over the years seem to follow closely the trends in climate change coverage in other countries, where the amount of news coverage went up substantially when there were prominent international summits or when some significant research reports were released (Schmidt, Ivanova, & Schäfer, 2013).

Even after the peak in 2007, the amount of news coverage remained at high levels in 2008 and 2009. This was probably driven by a new political development in South Korea, as well as by prominent international events elsewhere (Lee, 2009). In 2008, Lee Myung-Bak, the then-president of the country, introduced the idea of “Low Carbon, Green Growth” as a new paradigm of economic growth (Kang & Park, 2015). This new government policy received significant attention from the media, producing a substantial number of news articles about climate change in 2008 and 2009 (Kim et al., 2011). Without any further development in domestic policies and with slow progress in international climate politics, the amount of news coverage has been on a downward trajectory since 2010 (Lim et al., 2013).

The Source and Placement of News Coverage

News sources can exert significant impact on news content by playing a role as an agenda setter or a news framer. It is often the source who leads the journalists to a particular topic, helping the media set the agenda (Gans, 1979). News sources can also provide interpretive frames, telling the reporters what the key talking points of the story will be (Entman, 2007). Although no South Korean studies in existing literature specifically examined the sources of climate change news to our knowledge, one study (Lim et al., 2013) analyzed who typically wrote climate change stories for newspapers. The topic areas of reporters and writers may affect the perceptions of climate change and the key talking points presented in news articles (Moser, 2010). For example, stories written by science reporters will likely present climate change as a scientific issue, describing certain scientific controversies or new discoveries. Articles written by business reporters, on the other hand, will likely frame climate change as a business issue, highlighting certain positive or negative economic implications. Similarly, where stories are placed is examined, to determine which sections of newspapers typically cover stories about climate change. The story placement can indicate the way news editors make sense of the issue. A large number of articles in the national news section, for example, may suggest that the newspaper typically views climate change as a government policy issue. On the other hand, newspapers that place most such articles as a part of international news may view climate change largely as an international affair that may have only indirect implications for domestic politics and economy.

Lim et al. (2013) analyzed 431 bylined articles about climate change and examined which desks the writers belonged to. According to the analysis, climate change articles were written most often by foreign correspondents and international news reporters (n = 179, 41.5%), followed by science (n = 131, 30.4%), national news (n = 65, 15.1%), business (n = 31, 7.2%), and other (n = 25, 5.8%) writers. These findings may indicate that South Korean newspapers tend to rely heavily on foreign news for climate change stories and that climate change has been viewed largely as a foreign, rather a domestic, issue. The heavy reliance on foreign news can explain why the amount of climate change coverage rose significantly when there were prominent international summits or when important research reports (e.g., the IPCC reports) were released. As Lee et al. (2013) point out, climate change coverage in South Korea seems to focus primarily on reporting international events rather than providing in-depth analyses of potential impacts or detailed explanations of scientific backgrounds and controversies.

Although a significant number of articles seem to be written by science reporters (Lim et al., 2013), this does not necessarily mean that those articles are placed in the science sections. According to Kim et al. (2011), climate change stories rarely appeared in the science sections of South Korean newspapers. Their study of 876 climate change articles indicated that the articles appeared most often as a part of international news (n = 241, 27.5%), followed by national news (n = 201, 22.9%), op-eds (n = 181, 20.7%), local news (n = 118, 13.5%), and economic news (n = 86, 9.8%). The articles were found least often in the science sections, appearing only 46 times (n = 48, 5.1%). These findings may suggest that climate change is not often viewed as a scientific issue in South Korean newspapers. The same findings may also indicate the lack of scientific expertise among news reporters—including science reporters—necessary to present climate change as a scientific issue. Research (e.g., Kim, 2010) has revealed that science reporting in South Korea tends to be somewhat superficial in the sense that it often lacks the “science” component of the stories, focusing instead on newsworthy events and scandals.

Kim et al. (2011) report that while the heavy reliance on foreign news was found until 2007, news articles after 2007 have tended to focus more on domestic implications of climate change. Since the announcement of President Lee’s “Low Carbon, Green Growth” policy in 2008, the number of climate change articles in the foreign news section has declined significantly, while the articles have increasingly appeared in the national news, op-ed, and local news sections. The climate change coverage as a part of national news tended to focus on political and economic impacts of the new policy. The opinion pieces presented in large part controversies related to environmental issues and policies. A large majority of the articles in the local news section reported a variety of pro-environmental and public engagement activities found in local areas.

The Nature of News Coverage

In addition to the quantity, the qualitative nature of climate change coverage was examined from a review of content analysis studies. Because the media can play a significant role in the construction of environmental issues (Schoenfeld, Meier, & Griffin, 1979), the typical frames, or talking points, used in news stories were examined first. As an interpretive framework, news framing can have a powerful influence on how the public will process the information provided and what judgement readers will make on the issue (Trumbo, 1996). The tone of news stories is considered, assuming that the news tone will have a significant influence on the audiences’ evaluation of the issue (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2004). Did news stories represent both climate change supporters’ and skeptics’ perspectives in a balanced way? Or, were they in favor of one side over the other? Whether the newspapers have represented both sides with roughly equal attention determines how balanced the news coverage has been. Finally, the accuracy of the information provided in climate change coverage is assessed. Given that “science is an encoded form of knowledge that requires translation” (Ungar, 2000, p. 308), it seems necessary to examine how accurately or sufficiently climate science has been presented in newspapers.

Jee (2015) analyzed a total of 140 South Korean (Dong-A Ilbo and Hangyoreh Shinmun) and American (New York Times and Wall Street Journal) news articles about climate change between November 2001 and October 2013 to examine the presence of three climate change believers’ frames (“doctrinarism”—believing in climate change like a religion, “environmental disaster,” and “climate adaptation”) and three climate change deniers’ frames (“imperfect science,” “global warming skepticism,” and “scientific conspiracy”). His analysis indicated that a large majority (81.6%) of South Korean articles involved climate change believers’ frames (doctrinarism, 25.0%, environmental disaster, 25.0%, climate adaptation, 31.6%), while deniers’ frames were hard to find (imperfect science, 3.9%, global warming skepticism, 1.3%, scientific conspiracy, 6.6%). American news articles, on the other hand, were almost equally divided. About 42.2% of the articles used believers’ frames (doctrinarism, 26.6%, environmental disaster, 10.9%, climate adaptation, 4.7%), while as much as 45.4% involved deniers’ frames (imperfect science, 6.3%, global warming skepticism, 18.8%, scientific conspiracy, 20.3%).

In an analysis of three South Korean newspapers (Chosun Ilbo, Joonang Daily, Hankyoreh Shinmun), Kim et al. (2011) examined how often each of the three specific news frames appeared: “facts reporting” (simply delivering information related to the issue of climate change), “attitude forming” (either supporting or opposing climate change policies), and “public engagement” (promoting greater public engagement in climate adaptation activities). Overall, the largest number of articles employed the facts reporting frame, suggesting that South Korean newspapers have focused largely on simply delivering climate change information rather than providing in-depth analyses of potential implications of the issue. The use of the public engagement frame increased significantly after 2008, when President Lee introduced the “Low Carbon, Green Growth” policy. As the policy became a prominent part of the national agenda, the public’s support for and engagement in climate change adaptation might have been highly promoted or debated in newspapers. The liberal newspaper (Hankyoreh Shinmun) was more likely than the two conservative newspapers (Chosun Ilbo, Joonang Daily) to use the attitude forming frame as a way to oppose the “Low Carbon, Green Growth” policy. This, however, does not necessarily indicate liberals’ opposition to pro-environmental policies. Rather, the liberal paper’s opposition to the policy should be understood as part of the newspaper’s overall criticism of the conservative Lee administration (Kim et al., 2011).

In an analysis of 1,329 climate change articles from nine newspapers between 2009 and 2011, Lee et al. (2013) examined whether the articles were presented in a “cause-and-effect” or “corrective-measures” frame. A large number of articles (78.4%) reported on the causes and effects, while a much smaller number (21.6%) covered the measures to deal with climate change. Conservative papers (68%) were more likely than liberal papers (45%) to use the cause-and-effect frame, while liberal papers (55%) used the corrective-measures frame more often than conservative papers (31%). According to the authors, the frequent use of the corrective-measures frame in liberal newspapers may indicate that the liberal papers were using this specific frame as a way to criticize President Lee’s “Low Carbon, Green Growth” policy by highlighting why the policy would not be able to successfully address climate change problems.

Lim et al. (2013) examined whether South Korea newspapers maintained a balance between climate change supporters’ and skeptics’ perspectives. In particular, the researchers analyzed how the newspapers explained the causes of climate change, looking at whether they emphasized primarily anthropogenic or natural causes. They also examined the presentations of how to approach the climate change problem by analyzing whether the newspapers called for an immediate implementation of binding measures or a gradual adaptation. Their analysis of 663 news articles between 1997 and 2012 indicated that climate change coverage represented in large part climate change supporters’ perspectives. While about 63.9% of the articles focused exclusively on anthropogenic causes, only about 13.0% presented both anthropogenic and natural causes. When it comes to how to deal with climate change, a majority of the articles (59.2%) emphasized an immediate implementation of binding measures, while a much smaller number (39.7%) called for a gradual adaptation.

These unbalanced presentations of climate change in South Korea seem to be somewhat inconsistent with the findings from American newspapers. In a similar study, Boykoff and Boykoff (2004) reported that as much as 52.7% of the articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Wall Street Journal offered balanced accounts of both anthropogenic and natural contributions to global warming. The same authors also found that only about 10.6% of the articles focused exclusively on an immediate implementation of binding measures, while the majority (78.2%) discussed both immediate and gradual adaptations.

According to Lim et al. (2013), it is the lack of scientific expertise among South Korean reporters that may have led to heavy reliance on authoritative scientific communities for information (such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC]), which in turn results in simply delivering climate change supporters’ perspectives. The silence among climate scientists and experts can be another reason. Jee (2015) points out that there has been a “spiral of silence” among the experts in South Korea, and they were rarely willing to raise question about the essential findings of the mainstream climate change science. That is, expert opinions in South Korea have been highly unbalanced, contributing to the unbalanced reporting in newspapers. Jee (2015) argues the one-sided coverage in newspapers may have led the audiences to develop unbalanced conceptions about climate change, which in turn can explain the significantly high levels of public concern about and perceived risks of climate change among South Koreans. Lim et al. (2013) also found that there were little noticeable differences between conservative and liberal newspapers in this unbalanced reporting, with both representing primarily climate change supporters’ perspectives. This is somewhat inconsistent with the findings from European countries, where conservative papers are more likely to support climate change skepticism, while liberal papers are more in line with the perspectives of climate change believers (Carvalho, 2007; Dirikx & Gelders, 2010).

In addition to story frames and tones, Lee et al. (2013) examined South Korean newspapers’ ability to accurately and sufficiently report climate change science. The researchers analyzed a total of 1,329 articles and assessed the accuracy of climate change information presented in eight specific subtopics (greenhouse gases, climate change conventions, sea level rise, IPCC synthesis reports, expected damages and effects, use of fossil fuels, global warming, and mitigation and adaptation). Findings indicated that the articles presenting vague information about climate change significantly outnumbered those reporting accurate data. Only about 25% of the articles were considered accurate reporting, while the other 75% were categorized as either vague or “no data” articles, again demonstrating the lack of scientific expertise among South Korean reporters.

Conclusion

A review of public opinion polls shows that perceived risks of climate change have been consistently higher among South Koreans compared to people elsewhere. These higher levels of risk perception are not necessarily surprising given the impacts of rapid climate change that the country has experienced over the last several decades. In addition to these environmental explanations, there are likely social reasons as well. The South Korean government has introduced ambitious environmental policies, though it has been somewhat questionable whether the government has in fact the will to implement those (Lee & Yoon, 2014). At the minimum, it is likely that the strong policies have given the public a firm message that climate change is real and a serious problem. Although a review of public opinion polls and news coverage alone will never be able to confirm potential links between the two, it may at least hint how news coverage may have affected the way South Koreans think about climate change. In addition to reporting the serious impacts of climate change in the country, for example, the increasing volume of news coverage in South Korea may have contributed to the higher levels of perceived risks. In particular, by representing mostly the perspectives of climate change supporters, the one-sided coverage in newspapers may also have promoted greater public concern and perceived risks in the country (Lim et al., 2013).

Content analysis studies suggest that the amount of climate change coverage rose in South Korea at least until 2009, and started to decline thereafter. According to the studies reviewed, the amount of news coverage increased about four to five times between the early and the late 2000s. This trajectory in South Korea is not very different from the patterns of news coverage in other countries. According to an analysis of climate change coverage in 27 countries (Schmidt et al., 2013), the level of news attention in most countries went up significantly in late 2006 and early 2007 and remained at a high level through the end of 2009, when the growth turned into a noticeable decline. Given that South Korea has long maintained a carbon-intensive economy, findings are also consistent with other comparative studies showing that news attention is particularly high in carbon-dependent countries (Schmidt et al., 2013). The rising amount of news coverage in South Korea may not be very surprising given the high level of public concern in the country. This public opinion, however, may not have played a major role in driving up the amount of news attention. Rather, the increase seems to be driven primarily by international news and domestic politics (Lee, 2009). Until 2007, the increase in news coverage, as well as its short-term peaks, coincided with major international events, such as the release of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. After 2007, the amount was affected not only by international events but also by domestic politics, such as the Lee administration’s “Low Carbon, Green Growth” policy, which became an important part of the national agenda (Kim et al., 2011).

Lack of scientific expertise seems to have affected the nature of climate change coverage in South Korean newspapers. Research (e.g., Kim, 2010) has reported the overall shortage of science writers and the lack of expert knowledge among science writers in the country, which often result in heavy reliance on newsworthy events and scandals, instead of providing in-depth analyses of scientific backgrounds in news reporting. Another consequence is a heavy reliance on international news. According to Kim et al. (2011), for example, the largest number of climate change articles were found as part of international news, while the articles rarely appeared in the science sections. Another example is that the amount of climate change articles went up significantly when there were prominent international events (e.g., summits, agreements, or the IPCC reports), while the amount went down substantially in the years without such events (Lim et al., 2013). Also, the lack of expertise may have led newspapers to focus on simply delivering information rather than providing a scientific analysis, and, more important, much of the information delivered was found to be either vague or inaccurate (Lee et al., 2013).

The journalistic norm of balanced reporting does not seem to apply to newspaper coverage of climate change in South Korea. News articles have mainly represented the perspectives of climate change believers, while it was relatively hard to find skeptics’ arguments. Although this finding is consistent with other cross-national studies showing that news coverage of climate change skepticism is limited mostly to the United States and the United Kingdom (Painter & Ashe, 2012; Zamith, Pinto, & Villar, 2013), there are several unique explanations. First, South Korean newspapers have relied heavily on such authoritative international figures as the IPCC for information, which often leads to a conclusion that climate change is real or that human activities are primarily responsible. Second, as Jee (2015) points out, the opinions of climate scientists in South Korea are highly partial, and this may have contributed to the unbalanced reporting in newspapers. Third, given that South Korea has experienced the impacts of substantial climate change for decades and that the rapid climate change has been an important part of national news, newspapers may have become reluctant to argue that climate change is not real (Lim et al., 2013). There are also political reasons. President Lee, and his successor, President Park, have maintained strong and ambitious environmental policies. As an important part of the presidents’ agenda, these policies may have affected not only the quantity but also the nature of climate change coverage, setting the tone for news articles in favor of strong environmental regulations, which in turn influenced newspapers to become reluctant to raise questions about anthropogenic contributions to climate change.

When it comes to science news, however, the way the norm of balanced reporting is conceptualized and assessed may need to be revisited. Simply giving both sides equal attention may result in unintended miscarriages, including the public believing false claims largely discredited by the scientific community. Climate change, in particular, is an area where there is a large scientific consensus among experts, but, as Boykoff and Boykoff (2004) argue, the attempt by journalists to give equal coverage to both sides may have resulted in a biased or inaccurate perception of this topic among the American public. “Being balanced” may mean something else when it comes to scientific issues, and the way climate change has been presented in South Korean media may need to be reinterpreted with this renewed perceptive.

Unlike the findings from other countries (e.g., Carvalho & Burgess, 2005; Painter & Ashe, 2012), a significant correlation was not found in South Korea between the political leaning of a newspaper and its use of either climate change believers’ or skeptics’ voices. The majority of articles from both conservative and liberal papers seems to represent climate change supporters’, rather than skeptics’, perspectives (Lim et al., 2013). As Nisbet (2005) points out, conceptualizing the role of political values in shaping views on scientific controversies seems to require an understanding of the macro-level institutional arrangements that surround the controversies. In the United States, for example, climate change skepticism has a strong presence among the members of the Republican Party and the Tea Party movement (Painter & Ashe, 2012). In Europe and North America, relatively low levels of trust in mainstream science have often been linked to the climate change skepticism among conservatives (Carvalho & Burgess, 2005). It seems that such linkages and arrangements have not yet been established in South Korea.

In conclusion, this review of climate change communication in South Korea indicates that despite its increasing amount, climate change reporting in newspapers has been somewhat superficial, often lacking in scientific expertise, which seems to result in uninformed or under-informed public opinion. Unbalanced reporting, in favor of the mainstream climate scientists’ perspectives, can be concerning to some, as it may hinder the public being exposed to both sides of the climate change debate. The unbalanced and superficial communication may have resulted in a unique public sentiment in South Korea, where the public is highly concerned about climate change but somewhat unwilling to engage in a voluntary effort to solve the problem. More detailed analyses of policy options seem to be needed in news coverage of climate change as well as discussions about why and how average citizens should engage in an effort to solve the problem.

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