Mon, May 05, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Media proves unreliable on SARS

By Chin Heng-Wei 金恆煒

There are three creeds that a media professional should never violate -- fact, fact and fact. There is nothing aside from fact; it is the foundation on which the media is built. To satisfy the public's right to know and maintain the highest ethical standard for reasonable reporting, we must still rely on fact. When criticizing others, evaluating current affairs and even when chastising villains or sycophants or praising people for their potential virtues, we must not leave fact by the wayside. To make myself even clearer, -- if we ignore fact, the media structure will topple and break into pieces. More frightening, if we make wild statements based on false information, our moral character will erode even further.

What people disapprove of most in the Taiwanese media is that they do not report facts. The better among the media peddle rumors and neglect to verify facts. Others deliberately create untruths and see the media as a tool for fighting. And I'm only talking about the news media, not commentators. Commentators may of course hold their points of view, and talk about them. The media may also have their points of view. The important thing is that these points of view and commentaries must be based on fact. They must not deviate from logical reasoning, and should even be subjected to the rigors of methodology. This is what "professionalism" means.

A while back, the Government Information Office (GIO) issued a competitive tender for non-governmental organizations to "observe" print and electronic media in order to monitor the media. The result was a counter attack by the pan-blue camp and media claiming that the government was interfering with the media and restricting freedom of speech. The problem is that the plan was proposed to merely observe the media, and had nothing to do with freedom of speech. What's more, observation would not have been carried out by the government itself, but by a specialized organization commissioned by the government. On top of that, observation results would have been subjected to open discussion.

Is it really necessary to restrain Taiwan's media to be able to correct its unhealthy leanings? Both print and electronic media have made a big hoo-hah out of the recent spread of SARS. According to media reports, the GIO has received many complaints from the public. The complaints have been that the electronic media have been misleading the public by deliberately highlighting the dissatisfaction of and protests by those who have been put in quarantine. There have also been complaints that some media have broadcast reports without verifying facts and refused to publish corrections when the mistakes have been verified. According to DPP Legislator Ker Chien-ming (柯建銘), Taipei Deputy Mayor Ou Chin-der (歐晉德) in a Cabinet meeting even requested legislation that, if enacted into law, would punish media organizations for irresponsible behavior. This only goes to show the size of this difficult problem.

Allowing for punishment of the media for not correcting erroneous reports about the SARS situation despite requests to do so is definitely a more serious matter than "observing" the media. Ou is now requesting legislation allowing punishment of the media, thus giving the government the opportunity to interfere. It's interesting that Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) accused the GIO of damaging democracy when it tried to commission another organization to monitor the media. In any case, it highlights the fact that the media is a source of chaos.

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