Deliberation in Spite of Controversy? News Media and the Public's Evaluation of a Controversial Issue in South Korea

Article excerpt

Using a controversial issue in South Korea - a government plan to relocate the administrative capital - this study examines the role of news media use in facilitating informed issue evaluation, a form of deliberative decision making, where citizens carefully evaluate different attributes of an issue. Survey data indicated that respondents who used news media often were more able to articulate a specific reason why relocation would be a good or a bad idea. Heavy users of news media were also more firmly opinionated on key issue attributes and tended to think about the issue more carefully.

Any form of representative democracy is at least partially grounded on the premise that the public is well-informed about poUcy issues, and that their evaluation of specific poUcies is based on deliberate reasoning. Informed citizens tend to understand better how different poUcies can affect their interests; thus, their participation in collective decision making is likely to serve their own, not somebody else's, interests.1 While normatively appealing the notion of informed political decision making is in stark contrast with empirical reality. Studies have reported widespread political ignorance and lack of issue knowledge among the mass public.2 When it comes to making a decision, average citizens often tend to rely on information that fluctuates randomly or is most easüy at hand, rather than making a careful evaluation of each claim made in favor of or in opposition to a given policy.3

In general, informed decision making is mostly limited to welleducated social elites, those who possess cognitive skiUs, motivation, and resources to engage in such decision making.4 Being highly educated and poUtically sophisticated, elites share the ability and motivation to become well-informed in the first place.5 Education provides efficient ways of gathering useful information and cognitive skills to make sense of often-complicated information.6

More recently, studies in political communication have suggested that being informed about politics is not simply a matter of one's education level or social status. Political cognition is also a function of sociostructural and communication variables, such as mass media use and the size and quality of interpersonal networks.7 News media use, in particular, is a cost-effective way of keeping well-informed and developing a well-reasoned opinion. The media also tell the audience about different issue attributes or different reasons to support or oppose an issue, helping individuals make not random but considered judgments.8

Using a controversial issue in South Korea - a proposed government plan to relocate the administrative capital - this study examines the way the public evaluates a policy issue. More specifically, we look at the role of news media in facilitating informed issue evaluation, which we define as a deliberate effort to learn about different attributes of an issue, carefully weigh each, and take them all into consideration when deciding whether or not to support the issue. Further exploring the notion of political learning, we first explain how news media can affect the extent to which one engages in informed issue evaluation. Analyzing data from a telephone survey, we then examine in detail the potential connection between news media use and informed political decisions.

News Media Use, Political Learning, and Informed Issue Evaluation

Informed issue evaluation is a form of systematic opinion formation,9 where a person is well aware of different arguments made for or against a given issue, and carefully compares one with another when making up his or her mind. Forming an informed opinion is a multifaceted and hierarchical process, where several cognitive conditions must be met. First of all, one must obtain factual information about a given issue. That is, a person must become aware of and recall the basic facts in information gathering, what is often referred to as the Five Ws (and one H): Who was involved? …