Important events are a great opportunity for media outlets to show their skills and an important test for their professionalism and reputation. But judging from reports on the Papua New Guinea (PNG) fund scandal, the media appear as ridiculous as former vice premier Chiou I-jen (邱義仁), former minister of foreign affairs James Huang (黃志芳), or brokers Wu Shih-tsai (吳思材) and Ching Chi-ju (金紀玖).
Because the attempt to establish ties with Papua New Guinea was secret, few people even within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs knew what was going on. People like Chiou and Huang — who were in the know — are reluctant to divulge information, either to protect national secrets or personal interests. Meanwhile, Wu has been doling out information every day, either in person or through his lawyer. But with a record for fraud, he is not very reliable, and the information he has given has been incoherent, inconsistent and full of gaps. The exact whereabouts of the other key player, Ching, are unknown, although his lawyer says he will clarify his role in the case before president-elect Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) takes office on May 20.
But when we open a newspaper or turn on the TV, we are met with a deluge of reports on the investigation. Much of the coverage, however, has been mere speculation. This is yet another reminder of the regrettable state of media professionalism — or lack there of.
Another thing that should be discussed is that although it is illegal to publicize information about ongoing investigations, media reports are filled with information that is hard to verify. This means either that prosecutors or Bureau of Investigation team members are leaking information, or that the press is reporting pure conjecture. Either way it is a clear breach of professional ethics.
In addition, some politicians who crave the limelight offer daily conjecture or “information” that the media regurgitates without any apparent effort to confirm the material. These imaginative lies only serve to further complicate the investigation.
For three consecutive years, Freedom House has categorized Taiwan’s media as being among the world’s freest — a cause for pride. From the perspective of quality and credibility, however, several opinion polls have branded the same media one of the main causes of social turmoil.
Any media outlet will try to get exclusive reports. In doing so, however, the media should also emphasize professionalism and ethics to strengthen the ability to judge and verify news reports, instead of blindly reporting anything or fabricating news simply to improve sales. To avoid misleading the public, political bias should not be allowed in news reporting.
The media have a responsibility to report news and prosecutors have a responsibility to not publicize information about ongoing investigations, but this does not necessarily imply a head-on conflict between the two. The next minister of justice should look for ways to strike a balance between the public’s right to know and prosecutors’ responsibilities. This would help set clear standards for reporting major news events.