Wed, Aug 01, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Sensationalist news is the crime

The decision by Taichung prosecutors last week to indict TVBS reporters Chang Yu-kun (張裕坤) and Shih Chen-kang (史鎮康) on "intimidation" charges for helping gangster Chou Cheng-pao (周政保) film a threatening video last March is not only questionable because of the hefty prison terms they are seeking, but because they have also apparently decided that the producers who ultimately decided to air the video shouldn't share any of the blame.

The higher-ups at TVBS have claimed that they were in the dark throughout the incident. But while managers may not have been aware that their own reporters had helped film the video, they certainly could not have been unaware of its content.

At the heart of the matter is ambiguity over whether the real crime committed was faking news or broadcasting threatening material. The media, and prosecutors as well now, have blurred the lines between the two issues. Yet this is an important distinction, as police and courts should only have jurisdiction over "intimidation" -- although an extremely vague and dubious charge in itself -- but not over journalistic ethics.

In their indictment, prosecutors acknowledged that Chang had indeed passed the video on to TVBS headquarters, which decided to broadcast the video. As the official charge against Shih and Chang was for being willing accomplices in Chou's "intimidation," but not for faking news, whether or not the higher ups at TVBS were aware that their reporters had been involved is irrelevant.

It should have been obvious that the content of the video was a thug threatening violence against a rival gang leader, and yet they decided that this was fit for broadcast. Therefore, claiming ignorance about the video's source may serve as a weak defense against charges that they deliberately fabricated news, but not against the official charge of intimidation.

Ultimately, it is the supervisors who determine what material is appropriate and what is not. As such, although Shih and Chang should certainly bear responsibility for their own ethical infractions, they should not be made scapegoats for the mistakes made by TVBS management.

But even prosecutors seemed confused about what they were supposed to be investigating. In indicting Shih, they cited him for "intervening in the news incident" by temporarily stopping filming to pause for Chou when he bungled parts of his speech. Therefore, they say he was not just a reporter, but an accomplice in making the video.

Such a claim is certainly venturing into an extremely blurry area. Journalists around the world interview terrorists and other criminals. As long as they don't actively influence what their interviewees say, or purposely fabricate the material, it makes little difference if the journalist filmed the video himself or if the tape was sent to the bureau in an unmarked package. The question is whether what is on the tape contributes constructively to public debate. In this case, the answer is a resounding no.

In the end, all the details about who said what, who filmed what, and who oversaw the editing of the video are all beside the point. The problem is a sensationalist news environment in which stations like TVBS think that violent threats from thugs constitute real news. The video must have passed through many hands and undergone several reviews before it was broadcast on national television. Apparently, there weren't any decision makers at TVBS who thought that airing the video, regardless of its connection to their reporters, was irresponsible and lacking in real news value.

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