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“The news industry takes advantage of the hate-as-commodity ecosystem”

A new study borrows from fandom literature to ask: What if some of our haters make us stronger?

Fans and anti-fans — the haters, in common parlance — have a lot in common, argues Dr. Jane Yeahin Pyo of the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Both groups amass immense knowledge, react with strong emotions, and have a strong passion for their object of love/hate,” she writes.

Her cross-disciplinary study, published in the most recent issue of Digital Journalism, was based on 40 in-depth interviews with South Korean journalists who have been featured on two (in)famous anti-journalist sites in South Korea — “Reportrash” and “Nolooknews” — that rank journalists weekly. The conversations were anonymized for publication.

South Korea has freedom of information laws that are “in line with international standards,” though legislation on national security and defamation causes media outlets to leave out key details in some stories, according to the 2023 World Press Freedom Index. (The country ranked #47 out of 180 countries; the United States, for context, ranked 45th this year.)

We’ve got to start with the obvious: there’s a wiiiiide spectrum of anti-journalist sentiment, and this study is firmly planted at the “not so bad” end. When Pyo quotes South Korean journalists recounting praise they received from news industry peers after being targeted, it brings to mind reporters who proudly make “blocked by [famous politician’s handle]” their header image on Twitter or share less-than-kind feedback they’ve received.

Some harassment, though, is part of coordinated campaigns designed to undercut public trust in journalism — or silence reporters entirely. (At least 67 media workers were killed in 2022, a sharp increase from the previous year that was driven by deaths in Ukraine, Mexico, and Haiti.) Comments can function as digital media criticism that provides reporters with “a lens to read how the field of journalism is being contested and challenged” by the public, as Pyo puts it — or they can be outright harassment of journalists from underrepresented backgrounds. Press observers — including The Washington Post editorial board — have pointed out online environments are producing “dark alleys of hate, misogyny, and violence aimed at female journalists” in particular. Journalists of color are also particularly vulnerable to online harassment.

In this study, Pyo focused on two types of hate that reporters receive: “aggressive” comments left under news articles and being ranked on the sites “Reportrash” and “Nolooknews.”

The journalists Pyo interviewed outlined some of the social and professional upsides to appearing on the ranked lists — from spikes in pageviews to stronger connections with their peers, audiences, and sources — even as they told her the negative attention after a particularly prominent story could be stressful at best. (Pyo is careful to note that “existing literature on media harassment suggests that journalists maintain an avoidance or ‘don’t care’ mindset to mitigate their stress,” and that harassment tends to be worse for female journalists.)

Some reporters told Pyo that appearing on the online lists had helped them establish a reputation that could be recognized by “loyal” audiences of fans and anti-fans alike. Others said the name-calling was “a verification of their journalistic hunch of understanding what is ‘newsworthy.’” From the study:

“When I received a lot of comments calling me names, I knew that what I published was an exclusive piece, getting good traction,” said Eunjin, a young political journalist who broke a controversial story about the former Korean president. To her, negative and hostile news comments directed at her meant she delivered a scoop that successfully brought audience engagement. Similarly, Minjung explained the culture of her company that equates being hated with being impactful: “For political news, an article that did not receive any negative comments is a failure — no one writes harassing comments [to journalists] if no one cares about what they wrote.”

Another reporter, named Jinyoung, echoed the point: “No one pays attention to people whose jobs can’t make any difference in the world.”

I traded emails with Pyo about her research, the media context in South Korea, and mismatched incentives between news companies and individual journalists. Our conversation, edited slightly for length and clarity, is below.

Sarah Scire: Can you tell me what piqued your interest in doing this research in the first place?

Jane Yeahin Pyo: I started this research because I was researching about the widespread culture of harassing journalists in South Korea: Calling journalists names (“giraegi” is the word that journalists are often called, a combination of gija, journalist, and tsuraegi, trash), writing hateful comments, sending emails, etc.

I first set out to interview journalists to ask how they responded to and coped with these attacks. Many were defensive, saying they don’t mind the trolls so much, which is a common reaction according to the existing literature. But soon, I realized that they were speaking in terms of potentially getting something in return from the trolls, like how celebrities become more famous as they are hated. This is how I came to think about the celebrity/influencer studies aspect.

Scire: You mention the professional rewards that can be gained from engagement from anti-fans. Does this “hater” dynamic change if the news organization has a business model dependent on subscriptions or reader-generated revenue (rather than advertising dependent on metrics like pageviews and clicks)?

Pyo: This is a really interesting question. I don’t think the dynamic would change radically, thinking about the broader attention economy and the trend in celebrity culture. For instance, haters may follow a celebrity’s Instagram account just to express their hate. Likewise, readers may subscribe to a newspaper to access the information they completely disagree with and spread it to their own community. To say that a subscription-based business model would only attract readers with favorable attitudes toward the news organizations would be assuming a strict echo chamber in news exposure, which studies have shown is not always the case.

More importantly, as the logic of the attention economy has permeated so deeply in the online sphere, I can’t possibly imagine a news organization’s business model that is completely separate from the advertising revenue driven by metrics.

Scire: How country-specific do you think these findings are? For example, would you say that the U.S. has something similar to these sites in South Korea that rank journalists as “trash”?

Pyo: The online harassment of journalists is a worldwide phenomenon, for sure. Some forms of harassment are similarly happening in the U.S., such as writing uncivil comments and emails, doxing journalists’ personal information, and calling them names. In the U.S., the online harassment of journalists also takes a collective form, as it is used as a right-wing strategy. Still, the culture of creating anti-journalist websites, sharing information, and ranking journalists is unique to South Korea because of the historical distrust in journalism [Ed. note: More on that below.]

The findings that hate works like capital due to the logic of the attention economy are also applicable beyond South Korea, as U.S. journalists are also pressured to make themselves more visible and accessible to the public.

Scire: In the paper, you mention a “decline in trust in journalism after a series of nation-level misreporting from major news outlets” in South Korea. Can you tell me more about those events? Were those responsible for those lapses featured on the sites “Reportrash” and “Nolooknews”?

Pyo: The misreporting event that I’m referring to is the Sewol Ferry Tragedy that occurred on April 16, 2014. On this day, a ferry with 476 people sank and caused 304 casualties, due to the mixture of problems of overloading, the captain’s incapacity, and the failure of the officials’ timely action.

As the whole Korea saw the ferry full of young high school students fall before their eyes, many were shocked. What left them in more chaos was the news media’s continuous misreporting. Right after the incident, two major national broadcasting television channels reported that everyone on deck was rescued. Minutes later, another breaking news broke out that there were still people trapped in the ferry, and the number kept changing, causing trauma and fury among citizens who were anxiously awaiting the rescue. Even during the rescue process, criticisms soared as journalists unsympathetically tried to interview the survivors and the victims’ families. Scholars attributed the press failure to the new organizations’ pressure for breaking news, competition for audience attention, and a lack of professionalism and ethics.

The use of the derogatory name “giraegi” increased exponentially after this. But [Reportrash and Nolooknews] were created around 2018, so these journalists’ names are not featured on these websites. However, the feeling of distrust and disappointment is the fundamental root of the websites.

Scire: It was fascinating to read the participants reflect on some of the upsides to receiving hate online. Ultimately, would it be fair to say that your work suggests the news industry benefits from haters and anti-fans, but individual journalists don’t benefit? You wrote, “While anti-journalist hate is detrimental to individual journalists, the news media industry is overlooking the threats and putting individual journalists at risk because it regards it as an opportunity to gain traction. In this way, this research is also a critique of how the news media industry is increasingly capitalizing on the heightened visibility and digital publicity of journalists, pushing individuals to expose themselves online.”

Pyo: Yes — the news industry takes advantage of the hate-as-commodity ecosystem! It’s not mentioned in this research, but in my dissertation, I demonstrate how journalists are pushed by news organizations to write news articles that will induce more hate. One memorable quote that I got from one participant — he was ranked first on Reportrash’s List — was that news organizations use journalists as “human bullet shields,” a Korean phrase often used to describe scapegoats. He explained that as “human bullet shields,” journalists were placed at the forefront, alluring trolls’ attention and receiving the attack and harassment, while the company stood back and made more revenues from increasing pageviews.

Scire: There have been calls for newsrooms in the U.S. to act and help stanch harassment of their journalists online. Are there similar calls for the news industry and/or individual newsrooms to take an active role in stopping harassment of their employees in South Korea?

Pyo: In South Korea, the protection of individual journalists is greatly lacking. My participants shared that at the senior and managerial level, there is a lack of proper acknowledgment that journalist trolling is a serious matter. Even for mainstream legacy news organizations, there are no systematic or legal protections. Because of the elitist, macho, and exclusive nature of the Korean journalism field, there is also [an expectation] that a journalist should be able to ignore harassment and criticism. I think news organizations’ awareness of the well-being of journalists is the most important thing.

Scire: Can you tell me more about what you learned about how “the consequences of journalist harassment have been harder for already marginalized journalists”?

Pyo: Numerous studies have already documented that female journalists are more likely to be digitally abused and more likely to suffer severely from the attacks. Female journalists across the globe face sexist and misogynistic comments that attack them based on their gender or sexuality. Female journalists are also more vulnerable to stress and trauma because gender/sexuality-based harassment is so daunting, sometimes even resulting in actual sexual and physical violence.

In my research [in South Korea], as in the U.S. and elsewhere, the attacks on female journalists were more severe and left more damage. Male journalists more often told me that they could cope with trolling, demonstrating a “just live with it” attitude. However, for female journalists, digital harassment viscerally impacted them because the attacks often led to sexual threats or comments that made fun of their appearances. Because of the fear, female journalists also shed away from taking a more active role in their reporting. They feared having their profile photos up on the websites. The fear of harassment also limited Korean female journalists’ work-related opportunities and experiences. For example, the attacks affected the topics and issues that female journalists could [cover], such as sensitive social issues (with feminism or progressive perspectives).

Graffiti photo by Steve Rotman used under a Creative Commons license.

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