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Study of soap operas reflects media influence in southeast Asia

Friday, June 07, 2013

LAWRENCE — As the recent "Gangnam Style" craze illustrated, South Korean media can be hugely influential, not just among American music fans, but throughout the world. A University of Kansas journalism professor and master’s student have published a study examining the link between the influence of wildly popular South Korean soap operas and willingness of Vietnamese women to take part in international matchmaking services, which have been linked to human trafficking and exploitation.

South Korean soap operas have grown in influence throughout Asia, parallel to the rising phenomenon of transnational marriages between Vietnamese women and South Korean men. Tien-Tsung Lee, associate professor of journalism, and Hong Vu, a masters’ student, authored a paper in which they surveyed more than 435 Vietnamese women about their consumption of the soap operas, age, income, education and willingness to marry foreign men. They found the less education the respondents had and the more often they watch South Korean soap operas, the more likely they were to have an unrealistic idea of South Korea and were more willing to take part in matchmaking services, even though they are illegal in Vietnam.

“The most important finding, in my opinion, is the power of education,” Lee said. “The more education people had the less likely they were to have an unrealistic perception of South Korea or wanted to marry someone from that country. People are going to watch what they want to watch; you can’t stop them. But you can provide education. To me, that is the solution.”

Vu, a former reporter for the Associated Press and native of Vietnam, became aware of the rising phenomenon of transnational marriages and related exploitation issues while writing about the issue. While taking research classes with Lee, he brought up the topic and decided to pursue it as his master’s thesis. Lee, a native of Taiwan — a nation in which South Korean media is also very popular — was also familiar with the topic and encouraged Vu to pursue the issue. Lee provided expertise on statistics but gives credit to Vu for conceptualizing the study, authoring the survey in Vietnamese and executing the project. Vu, who is currently pursuing his doctorate at the University of Texas-Austin, is the lead author of the study.

In relation to their findings on respondents’ education levels, they found that women who spent more time watching the programs tended to have less education. About 3 percent of respondents were attending or had graduated from college; 40 percent had finished high school; 36 percent had graduated from junior high; 18 percent dropped out after primary school, and 2.3 percent had never attended any school. They also asked the women about their income levels and found that while nearly all of them had some form of income, those who made the least money also tended to be the least educated and also had the most unrealistic views of South Korea.

Of the more than 400 women, none had ever been to South Korea, and a full 25 percent said the country’s soap operas were their sole source of information about the nation. Forty-three percent said they relied on TV news and soap operas for their information on South Korea. The dramas, which like many from around the world feature attractive actors in highly dramatic storylines, feature many characters as doctors, lawyers or as having large sums of money not in proportion with actual citizens of South Korea.

The researchers examined the soap operas through the lens of cultivation theory. The theory posits that television can subtly and directly influence audience’s perception of reality and that through prolonged exposure people can accept unrealistic portrayals of life as accurate. Media portrayals of a wealthy nation can be especially influential in nations with high poverty rates, the researchers said, and the survey shows how important education can be in fighting problems like human trafficking and offsetting the influence of media.

“In the borderless world of information today, we are submerged in the sea of media messages at pretty much the same level,” Vu said. “This study demonstrates that there is a huge difference between those who can financially afford to experience the world firsthand - in this case paying for a tour to check out South Korea - and those who risk their life to marry someone they only know a few days before their wedding to get similar experience. In addition, this research shows that education is such an important factor when assessing media messages. The women who had just a few more years of education have stronger critical thinking when consuming media content.”