Taiwan — a country at the mercy of the media
In many parts of the world, the media is tightly controlled by the state, or gently swayed by certain corporations or political parties behind closed doors. In Taiwan, it is the other way around — the government and its officials often find themselves at the mercy of endless coverage and the oversensationalization of what they said and did. The media does have a responsibility to act as a “watchdog,” — the fourth estate. However, like always, its sense of what is important often leads it astray. Such was seen yet again with Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je’s post-typhoon relief efforts.
Before Ko, dragging his luggage, led his delegation of 30 city officials to board a plane bound for his three-day trip in Shanghai, Ko appeared at a local government summer camp that invited young people to take part in and understand Taipei City’s bureaucracy. In Ko’s opening speech, he opined that Taiwan is a “media-governed country,” bemoaning how the press enjoy creating “news from nothing at all as long as they gain high ratings.” This reaction from Ko is understandable given how the media had carped about how the clean-up operation in Taipei post-Souledor were significantly slower than previous post-typhoon efforts.
The media’s fickleness is not old news, but as the press ganged up on Ko following his comments and his government’s handling of Typhoon Soudelor — whether Greater Taipei’s water contamination, the rows of fallen trees and Wulai being cut off from outside access, one might think that Ko is actually the mayor of both Taipei City and New Taipei City. Where was the actual New Taipei City mayor in all of this?
Wulai is one of those areas where disaster preparation measures were seriously lacking, which in turn resulted in citizens being stranded, deaths and severe landslides in the mountainous areas. New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu avoided criticism from the press, who heaped scorn on Ko instead, but does that mean Chu shouldn’t be held accountable for Wulai’s devastation? Of course he should, but for some reason, the media — and society at large — don’t treat Chu as harshly as they do Ko. Bias on the part of the news media should not be in play in such important incidents, especially not when lives are at stake.
Chu did not garner as much criticism as Ko because he lived up to the proverb “silence is gold,” a tactic that politicians often use in tandem with speaking vaguely, in generalities, which they utilize to avoid answering difficult questions. Ko walked away damaged, but hopefully more prepared for the next typhoon to hit the metropolis. Sadly, the whole episode demonstrates how media coverage continues to reflect the industry’s tendency to rely on feeding the public appetite for sensational “processed news,” dropping important news coverage in favor of something that will win them more viewers, shares and likes.
Take the news coverage of Chu’s former deputy mayor Hsu Chih-chien as another example. Hsu was pushed into the spotlight after the Formosa Water Park explosions after corruption allegations were leveled against him, but coverage of story faded from view following the student raid on the Ministry of Education. It is expected that the case will continue to unfold, but if there are no “salacious,” or bait-worthy aspects, can it generate as much coverage to compete in the 24-hour news field? Or will it become submerged in the news that actually generates viewers? Government accountability is important, especially in Hsu’s case, as he was involved in the Fuzhou affordable housing project, but unless sensationalized, it is unlikely that we will see any rolling news coverage.
It is the media’s — and their readers’ — responsibility to choose what should make the news. Light-hearted news in the midst of disasters, such as the “Little Red” and “Little Green” mailboxes that were knocked sideways or the rescue of animals and people are heart-warming, but should not deserve large coverage in the media. These pieces of news will indeed generate views and likes, but sensationalization should not become the deciding factor in what is important and newsworthy — a balance is needed.
Now that online media employ “clickbait” headlines, baiting readers to click on their article in order to read the entire story, it is also up to readers to decide whether an article is “readworthy” enough. Online clickbait feeds upon the general reader’s appetite for sensationalization, and curiosity. Refusal to be baited and willingness to read what is considered important news will eventually force the media to reconsider its reporting material.
Perhaps Typhoon Goni’s looming presence will serve as a timely reminder for both the media and local governments.