In The News

SBS Shakes up Voter Malaise in Korea

March 13, 2013

The inauguration ceremony of South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, was held on February 25 with mixed feelings among Koreans about her election. She is the daughter of the controversial former president, Park Chung Hee, who is seen as the man who motivated Korea’s economic development miracle, but also criticized as a harsh dictator who ruled the country for 18 years. She is the country’s first female president, but is also from a conservative party in a country that ranks lowest in The Economist‘s latest Global Ceiling index, which compares 26 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in terms of the working environment for women.

Korea inaugurated its new president, Park Geun-hye, on Feb. 25 with mixed feelings among Koreans about her election. Photo/SBS

The more telling part is that she was elected with 15,773,128 votes, which is 51.6 percent of eligible voters. This was the first time that a South Korean president got more than half of the votes since Korea reintroduced direct popular voting in 1987. The voter turnout was the highest since 1997 at 75.8 percent. SBS (Seoul Broadcasting System), where I work as a reporter and one of the three major broadcasting networks in Korea and the first and largest private broadcasting station, played an influential role in this election’s high turnout and voter engagement. They did this by using a creative outreach campaign.

Since 1987, especially among Korea’s young adults and more educated population, interest in voting has consistently waned as the public expressed increasing disappointment in politics and politicians who are seen as always fighting among themselves and not putting the interest of the people first.

To help raise voter turnout, SBS decided to try something new in the lead up to the general elections for the National Assembly in May and the subsequent presidential election in December. Before this, election coverage in Korea was mostly about delivering exit polls and ballot counts.

Starting with the general election, SBS launched an outreach campaign that asked people to take a picture of themselves in front of the polling station after they voted and send it to the broadcasting station. When we received the pictures, we put them on the lower right side of the TV screen, so everyone could see who had voted. The response was enthusiastic and spread quickly among voters, who liked having their pictures on TV. They told their family members and friends about it, and more and more people went to vote. What was striking was that the majority of participants were young people, many of whom were voting for the first time.

SBS launched an outreach campaign that asked people to take a picture of themselves in front of the polling station after they voted and send it to SBS, which then featured them on screen during election coverage. Photo/SBS

SBS launched an outreach campaign that asked people to take a picture of themselves in front of the polling station after they voted and send it to SBS, which then featured them on screen during election coverage. Photo/SBS

For the presidential election, SBS went a step further. We not only put pictures of the voters on the screen but also had people tell us beforehand what time they intended to vote. Then SBS sent them stickers that they could put on their car to remind them of the time and to inspire others to vote. We also made a “get out the vote” song with famous singer and actor Kim Chang-wan, who is a radio DJ at SBS. It was then made into a music video with webtoons.

On election day, SBS received 65,000 pictures of people voting, mostly younger voters. This also encouraged many older people, who were nervous that a strong turnout among young people might sway the vote, to also go out and vote, which helped raise the voting rate even more.

SBS also focused on making the ballot-counting coverage on live TV more engaging. We made computer graphics incorporating scenes of movies and TV shows using scenes from the popular the Korean movie, “Friend,” in which the main characters are running. It was designed so that it looked like the main characters were the candidates, putting the candidate with the highest vote in front. SBS also used sports like fencing to show how the candidates were performing in different districts. Mark MacKinnon, a correspondent for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper tweeted that “after watching how South Korean TV covers an election, I’ll never watch CNN again” and CNN correspondent Paula Hancocks responded, “Don’t worry, I’m taking notes!”

For the first time since 1987, the voting rate actually rose instead of dropped. The biggest difference compared to the 2007 presidential election was the massive voting among people in the age group of 20-30. As in 2007, people in their 50s and 60s still voted the most, 82 percent and 80.9 percent respectively, which is 5 percent higher than before, but the rate for voters in their early 20s jumped from 51.1 percent in 2007 to 71.1 percent, and those in their late 20s jumped from 42.9 percent to 65.7 percent. The voting rate of those in their early 30s was 67.7 percent which was 16.4 percent higher than four years ago, and that of those in their late 30s was 72.3 percent which was 13.8 percent higher than before.

On February 27, the government awarded SBS President Woo Wan Gil a medal for the network’s contribution to the nation. We were proud of ourselves as a media company not just because of the medal, but because we engaged Koreans to follow the elections and go to vote, which is the most basic democratic responsibility. We realized that even when people tend to ignore the news, if you do it right, they will watch. And, even in this day and age, the media can play a critical role in improving society.

Chong-ae Lee, a current Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, is a senior reporter on the Future and Vision Desk for SBS in Korea, where she has worked since 1995. At Harvard, she is studying journalism related to complex trauma, focusing on people who have experienced the effects of periods of colonialism, war and military-influenced dictatorial administrations followed by rapid economic growth. Her fellowship is under the auspices of The Asia Foundation, and administered by the Foundation’s Asian American Exchange unit. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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