Sun, Dec 16, 2018 - Page 6 News List

NCC should save news channels

By Eve Chiu 邱家宜

There are TV stations, reporters and staff who are doing a good job with election coverage, but viewer ratings for coverage of the nine-in-one elections were a huge blow for them. Channels that reported on candidates in an uneven manner had more viewers than channels with more balanced reporting.

During ballot counting after the Nov. 24 vote, news channels that updated vote counts earlier received much higher viewer ratings than channels that required the numbers to be verified before they were reported.

Viewer ratings represent advertising income, which is a matter of life and death for commercial TV stations. Consequently, journalists who take their job seriously often struggle with viewer ratings, while their competitors — who pay scant attention to professionalism — get much higher ratings.

With “bad money driving out good,” what is the National Communications Commission (NCC) doing with its authority to censure stations that diseminate misinformation and fake news?

Taiwan’s ballot-counting process is quite wondrous. For hours, viewers who care about election outcomes are fixated on ever-changing and difficult-to-verify vote counts on TV, their mood fluctuating with the fortunes of the candidates they support. It is an open secret that with the exception of Public Television Service (PTS), whose operations do not rely on commercial income, news stations have been “inflating” vote numbers in live broadcasts of vote-counting in the scramble for higher viewer ratings.

During the 2004 presidential election, a scandal broke when news stations trying to outdo each other with inflated vote numbers to the extent that their numbers exceeded the final tally. Following public criticism, stations pledged to exert self-discipline. Some self-restraint was apparent during the 2008 presidential election, but by 2012, they were back at it again.

It seems that no one can stop TV stations from inflating numbers as long as they do it “discreetly” — not inflating them “too much.”

However, coverage of the vote-counting process should be truthful. Reports on ballot numbers should follow verified counts, not the manipulation of news station managers, who become directors catering to viewers’ state of mind and targeting ratings. Reporting vote counts is not a soap opera, but it seems to follows similar logic.

Inflated figures during the 2004 presidential election brought post-election political and social turmoil, because supporters of the pan-blue camp doubted the official results after having watched the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) ticket of Lien Chan (連戰) and James Soong (宋楚瑜) hold a fabricated lead for several hours. In pursuit of advertising income, which seems to be a trivial consideration compared with democracy for such TV stations, they harmed the nation and allowed news coverage — a public good — to become public enemy No. 1.

Social progress is always slower than people expect, because preventing regression and setbacks requires great effort. TV news is closely connected to the quality of democracy, but stations performed poorly in their coverage of last month’s elections, which is a warning of a coming setback. This must be addressed head-on to safeguard Taiwan’s democracy.

With commercial television stations in the mainstream, allowing rule-breakers to profit is tantamount to suppressing and eliminating those who stick to journalistic professionalism, just as turning a blind eye to tax dodgers is tantamount to punishing tax payers.

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