Tai­wan — a coun­try at the mercy of the media

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

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.

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