Tue, Oct 03, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Objectivity is lost when the media choose sides

By Chiu Hei-yuan 瞿海源

The media exerts a great influence in Taiwan, but in the recent political tensions they have departed from their traditional role and played the part of a provocateur and instigator.

The media have been using their powerful influence in a way that is fundamentally flawed and this will certainly leave a mark on the history of Taiwan's political scene.

Many of the nation's media outlets continue to operate in a mode that has changed little since the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). The control of these outlets remains essentially monopolistic. Last year, the Chinese-language China Times newspaper acquired a number of other media outlets in preparation for forming an alliance spanning various media formats.

In a democratic society, the normal function of the media is to report on major events and offer analysis and criticism based on facts. This role can have a major positive impact on a modern society's politics, public policy and public affairs, and thus is one of the pillars of democratic governance.

However, when the media outlets begin to use unverified information in their reports, the media become both judge and jury, acting on information they have themself generated. There is great potential for abuse if this information turns out to be flawed or biased. This can be seen in some political talk shows that have made their reputation by using their self-generated, so-called "revelations" to accuse people and then find them guilty.

Clearly, when they "report" the news, many media outlets fabricate their stories. When newspapers go so far as to run inflammatory headlines atop these stories, the situation grows even more serious.

Fortunately, such practices often backfire if they they are taken too far. When Taiwan's newspapers are discovered to have cooked up a particular issue to an unacceptable extent, they are required to make a formal apology.

Although police investigators are often not allowed to reveal any details related to a case in progress, media outlets frequently run stories -- based on leaks -- containing very detailed information about the investigation.

To get to the bottom of these cases, it is informative to identify the parties that might have benefitted from the leak.

Sadly, in many cases, it is the media, in collusion with certain muckrakers, that have used the leaked details -- which are still under investigation and thus not proven -- to make up stories. If a story lacks substance, many of the nation's media outlets have no problem with fleshing it out with unproven allegations.

One possible result of the current political climate is that President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) political career could be ended as a result of his trial by the media.

On the surface, it seems the media have made a great contribution to the investigation into Chen's alleged wrongdoings.

However, certain media outlets' efforts to falsify news or coerce the courts into ruling a certain way violate journalistic ethics and depart from the spirit of democracy. This is a pathetic way for the media to behave and one that history will condemn.

Chiu Hei-yuan is a research fellow in the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica.

TRANSLATED BY DANIEL CHENG

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