Immediately following the shooting of Sean Lien (連勝文) on the eve of Saturday’s special municipality elections, the focus of all the television news reports seemed to make all the election candidates disappear from TV screens. Some media outlets kept broadcasting comments like “we must not let Lien’s blood be spilled in vain,” “Lien was only shot because he had different political views,” “Use your vote to stop violence in elections” and “God save Taiwan,” while 3D animations showed eerie images of how the bullet pierced Lien’s face and skull.
Around midnight on the night of the shooting, guests on talk shows were sobbing and saying how much hardship lay ahead for Lien before they even knew the details of his injuries.
For voters, the shooting and these comments brought back memories of the shooting that happened just before the 2004 presidential election. While the two shootings were different in nature, they are similar in the way the media manipulated them.
Studies have been made on how media are used to awaken strong emotions within people. The research has been used to explain how media broadcasts can awaken irrational logic that is hidden within the minds of viewers or listeners. For example, many people in the US still associate the Japanese with Pearl Harbor and thus the phrase “Pearl Harbor” in the US has an almost mythical quality. If the image of Pearl Harbor is called up, an irrational “emotional twitch” or “spasm” will be aroused in which people remember how the Japanese once hurt the dignity of US citizens and took many lives.
It is now clear that after two pre-election shootings, many politicians are becoming more skilled at arousing this irrational logic among voters. When certain ideas or words that arouse certain feelings in voters are used and linked to a certain political party, the side using this as a form of manipulation stands to benefit greatly.
However, in the event of a pre-election shooting, shouldn’t the media have a higher sense of self-control so as to uphold the basic values of democratic elections? Are the media totally incapable of judging when a politician is acting in a manipulative manner and what their motives are for doing so? Do the media really have to contribute to making our whole society uneasy on the eve of a major election?
To protect against manipulation of information about elections by the media, the Civil Servants Election and Recall Act (公職人員選舉罷免法) bars the media from releasing information about, reporting on or offering critical opinions of the results of opinion polls 10 days before an election, as well as spreading rumors “for the purpose of making a candidate elected or not elected.” Now, shootings have been involved in two elections and this has left an indelible mark in the memories of voters, while destroying the trust that is a cornerstone of democratic societies. It is therefore time to regulate reports in the media and by politicians about shootings and elections.
It is crucial that media outlets establish criteria for self--regulation in relation to reporting about major disturbances of law and order before elections. It should be included in a mechanism for license renewal reviews. In addition, politicians or media who make speculative comments or remarks meant to provoke others and stir things up should also be treated as actions “for the purpose of making a candidate elected or not elected” as mentioned in the election and recall law. This would go a long way in regulating such issues.