Background Research

Mar 05, 2019

In Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman write that, among the other functions of the media, that it “serve[s], and propagandize[s] on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them,” and that this serves a major purpose in defining “dominant ideologies.” This book was a seminal work in the field of linguistics, and although it was published in 1988, its ideas still remain relevant today (Chomsky et. al.). Bharat Anand confirms this “sensationalization” of media by an article published in the Harvard Business Review in 2017. He explains that the media is sensationalizing issues because “its business model leads it in that direction.” He goes on to explain that people use media outlets that generally agree with their worldview, and that this amplifies the messages of sensationalist media works (Anand). The Kirwan Institute of Ohio University writes that, “In addition to early life experiences, the media and news programming are often cited origins of implicit associations,” which shows how news, especially sensationalist media, can create implicit biases in people. Implicit biases are the attitudes or stereotypes that affect decisions unconsciously (Kirwan Institute).


This trend of sensationalization is especially present in media about North Korea, with headlines sometimes misconstruing or inaccurately reporting facts. Historically, orientalism has been used to justify US actions by portraying the North Koreans as a certain way. For example, Charles Kraus explains that since the early Cold War era, American occupiers in North Korea “depict[ed] the Koreans as politically immature, culturally backward, and prone to dictatorship,” which led to American attitudes viewing Korean culture as backwards and lesser than Western culture (Kraus). Consequently, the United States  used supposedly declining Korean cultural values to justify the division of the Korean peninsula, setting up tensions that continue to impact us even today. Even after the Cold War era, this trend continues. For example, Gusterson argues that the current nuclear discourse and division between the East and West is “stabilized within a broader system of colonial and postcolonial discourse that takes as its essentialist premise a profound Otherness” (Gusterson). For example, he brings up that North Korea only uses their nuclear weapons as a deterrent, and view them as key to continuing their regime. Binnarae Oh reaffirms Gusterson, by explaining how “current international nuclear discourse presents bipolar images between ‘us’, in which the U.S. is portrayed as safe with weapons, and the ‘other’ which infers problematic non-Western country nuclear predicament,” showing that the nuclear divide is aimed at legitimizing the West and de-legitimizing the East. This mindset is incorporated across mass media.


Using an orientalist framework to view the effects of the media, we can evaluate “sensationalist” pieces aimed at inspiring  terror. Andray Abrahamian, who holds a PhD in US-North Korea relations, explains that headlines have grown more and more likely to advocate sensationalist views by selectively cherry picking details in order to create an atmosphere of fear — thus sensationalizing the issue, and selling more copies. For example, from the Newsweek article Abrahamian references, the headline is “North Korea Threatens to Strike the US with a Powerful Nuclear Hammer’.” However, Abrahamian explains how the “if/then” clause was omitted, which would have explained that the North Korean diplomat said that they would strike the US with a nuclear hammer only if the United States struck them first. He explains that the problem with this is that this ramps up animosity making it difficult to “ease tensions between Washington and Pyongyang” (Abrahamian). Similarly, an article from Al Jazeera corroborates this. Quoting Haeryun Kang, the lead editor of the Korea Exposé, they argue that there is a double standard for North Korea and US threats as North Korea is seen as an “axis of evil” while the US is seen as “the paradigm of democracy and freedom and rationality.” They explain that the problem with this caricaturization is that, over time, there is an image that is formed that “these [the North Koreans] are people that are fundamentally irrational and strange… barely human” (“War of Words”). This is crucial because it shows how the media can create perceptions that inherently alter the way that people look at other countries, and more specifically, can alter the way people view foreign policy adversaries.


Previous research into implicit biases have shown that they impact the actions of people, despite being subconscious. For example, Blair et. al. showed in a study published in the Permanente Journal that unconscious biases impact the way different racial groups receive medical treatment. Similarly, other papers have chronicled other implicit biases and how to address them. The media has significant tropes that they use when covering North Korea — frequently showcasing the country and the regime as unstable, dangerous, and crazy. However, there has been little attention given to the impact of these stereotypes. Although there exists significant scholarship devoted to these stereotypes, there is little to no research devoted to the impacts of these stereotypes on a personal level. Thus, this research paper attempts to understand what impact stereotypes of North Korea have on people.

Ideally, the value of this study will be a more informed view of the media, with the potential to spark other papers researching the stereotypes on other countries and their impacts on foreign policy. Furthermore, it will also provide a more well rounded view of foreign policy and will provide a jumping point for future studies on how the media impacts people’s perceptions of foreign policy. Especially with the rapidly changing relationships between the United States and North Korea (with the advent of face-to-face relations and the Singapore Summit), it is more pertinent than ever to analyze foreign policy. Hobley explains that the views of people can impact the decisions of officials, and therefore it is important to consider the impact of media on the views of people to get a better understanding of how people inform their opinions and to understand to what extend media informs this view (Hobley). Thus, this led me to my research question: “How do stereotypes in the media affect Americans’ foreign policy ideas on North Korea?” Through my research, the role of rhetoric and media in shaping people’s perceptions of North Korea will be examined.

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