Media’s perspective of foreigners can be better

Edited version published in Joongang Daily, December 10th, 2013.

I have lived in Korea for seven years now. Despite firsthand experience and research on media and education, I still do not claim to be an expert in Korean media culture. No doubt that media are powerful tools that orient us to reality particularly in societies like Korea where the media are a near ubiquitous. The significance of new media in contemporary Korea lies in its proximity; smartphones have become our closest consultants. In the words of Marshall McLuhan four decades ago that “the media work us over completely” couldn’t be truer today. McLuhan is considered the father of modern communications.

It is also common knowledge that the media largely influence our choices: what we buy, what we eat, how we dress and sometimes invokes our thinking on topical issues. Beyond the traditional functions of media to inform, educate, persuade, entertain and set agenda for deliberations, the media too form deep-seating cultural perspectives or worldviews. In fact, McLuhan asserted that all media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values. His claim that the media are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, or unaltered is quite evident in modern life.

In the recent days, there has been a series of publications focusing on multicultural aspect of the Korean society. Some discussions have dealt with multicultural families, immigrant workers and mixed-race children. Fair enough, over the years Korean TV dramas such as “Golden Bride,” “Wandeuki,” “Banga Banga,” “Ojakgyo Brothers,” among others have involved foreigners, and significantly, though in varying intensities, depicted key multicultural issues. These initiatives are fantastic though I always anticipate that they transcend entertainment scenes. Importantly, some interpretations in media necessitate reformation for they often raise eyebrows due to distorted images and unnecessary stereotyping.

News about foreigners, particularly from the developing world, habitually cover stories involving a legal tussle, domestic violence or minorities as victims of some sort. It is also common to see news about foreign minorities receiving goodwill from generous Korean individuals or companies. While hospitality is by all means much appreciated, emphasis on these perspectives can potentially reinforce a misconception that foreigners are underprivileged or deeply in need. Some TV documentaries have occasionally presented one-sided stories of poverty, conflicts or tribal communities from especially the developing countries. These too reinforce ‘reductionist’ views.

Thus, the media, in their effort to encourage positive multiculturalism, may directly or indirectly disseminate images that do more harm than good to the very desire for culturally diverse society.

Depictions of minority foreigners as ill-informed, severely needy, or dirty, fail to promote the cultural diversity that the very existence of foreigners conveys to the Korean society. In some instances, foreigners have been subjected to excessive expectations of one-way “total assimilation” of the local culture. Some have been frowned upon for their critique of certain aspects of Korean culture even when the criticism is done constructively.

Through a balanced coverage, the media can meaningfully help the society to understand that foreign minority do contribute to Korean socio-economic framework. It will also be helpful if media content producers would seek opinion of those they intend to characterize. Two offending advertisements (about Africa) by Korean companies which were recently pulled out of the market could illustrate a distorted view about other cultures.

C.S. Lewis, a profound thinker and prolific writer once argued that every culture has its own blind spots, its own viewpoint and from that bearing, it superficially perceives certain truths especially predisposed to make certain blunders.

Korean society can be a beautiful multicultural mosaic and I am optimistic that media images can prudently offer positive contribution. Without bearing in mind the feelings of the minorities they typify, the media may end up inhabiting a tiny universe that will choke the otherwise prospective multicultural dream.

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