Sun, Apr 01, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: The viewer holds the remote control

In response to complaints over gangster footage directed and filmed by a former TVBS reporter, the National Communications Commission (NCC) said on Friday that TVBS and TVBS-N would each be fined NT$1 million (US$30,200) and that TVBS must replace general manager Lee Tao (李濤) within seven days of receiving the order. It was the heaviest punishment handed out by the NCC since it covened.

TVBS previously falsely reported that slaughterhouse workers removed duck feathers with tar, reports which led to a drastic decline in duck sales. TVBS' approach to "news" gathering is all too clear, and in this light the penalty may seem lenient.

The potential for harm when reporters lack professional ethics and a sense of responsibility is considerable. The footage of a "gangster" threatening another crime figure was proof enough that the lack of ethics in the media extends up and down the chain of command.

If TVBS had exercised genuine quality control, the offending material could and would have been identified and dealt with at one of several points in the editing process. But when everyone, from reporters to upper management, disregards these responsibilities, it becomes not the problem of one reporter but of the whole editorial process.

TVBS portrayed this material as an exclusive news story and sensationalized it at every opportunity. To make matters worse, all other TV news stations followed suit, suggesting that the problem does not stop with individuals or individual companies.

Because TV stations are guided by ratings and compelled to act by no-holds-barred competition, fabricated and manipulated news stories have become increasingly apparent in recent years. Digital manipulation of images, sound effects, music, cartoons and other effects are used. When interviews become difficult to produce, actors are used to reenact a piece of news.

As long as ratings are delivered, electronic media will come up with innovative ways of sensationalizing news material. This may begin with managers "directing" reporters what to do, but reporters soon learn what management wants and will do whatever is required to make a story "newsworthy," regardless of its merit.

Viewers will have their own opinions of whether the NCC's treatment of TVBS was appropriate, but we must take a pessimistic view.

The NCC's ability to put an end to this unhealthy competition is compromised by the fact that it is an illegitimate, partisan body, and has been declared unconstitutional by the Council of Grand Justices.

Even if it could be taken seriously as an agency, past administrative punishments, such as fines and the suspension of TV programs, have only been temporarily effective. As soon as a TV station faces ratings pressure, it tends to fall back into its old ways.

In the end, it is down to viewers to vote with their remote controls instead of clucking their tongues. Viewers have the power to change channels and refuse to watch these types of news programs.

In the meantime, the prospects in the medium term of having a non-partisan media regulator established are dim. Viewers therefore will consume what they ask for, and have little right to criticize the government if they persist in supporting deceptive journalism by tuning into stations that peddle it.

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