The recent double murder in New Taipei City’s (新北市) Bali District (八里) has finally been solved. Ironically, a number of suspects who had been named as accomplices by several media outlets and who gave clear descriptions of what happened were not charged. If these media outlets cannot learn from this experience, they will become notorious as “the Hollywood of the news media.”
The discovery of the Bali bodies, as well as the head of a woman found in a public lavatory in Chiayi County, sparked intense media coverage last month.
There is nothing wrong with expansive reporting of such cases. The problem is that the media are not detectives. Reporters ignore the presumption of innocence and run investigations based on conjecture, and even attempt to reconstruct the crime scenes as if they were Sherlock Holmes. It is all very odd.
The Code of Criminal Procedure (刑事訴訟法) states that the presumption of innocence requires that: “Prior to a final conviction through trial, an accused is presumed to be innocent.”
This spirit of the presumption of innocence, which is about protecting human rights, is also a focus of media ethics.
The title of Section 13 of the German Press Council’s Press Code is “Presumption of Innocence.” The section states: “The principle of the presumption of innocence also applies to the press” and demands that “reports should make a clear distinction between suspicion and proven guilt.”
In Taiwan, the Association of Terrestrial Television Networks’ convention on self-discipline states: “Based on the principle of the presumption of innocence, reports about and interviews with suspects for whom courts have not issued a judgement shall be protective of their human rights.”
Despite that, many media outlets have been strongly subjective in their reporting about these two murder cases and have treated the suspects like criminals.
Similarly, the field of journalism studies has always been very cautious about reports on simulated reconstructions of crime scenes because it is extremely difficult to reconstruct an incident. Even when there were witnesses to a crime, their recollections might be selective.
Furthermore, even a reconstruction based on known facts is often groping around in the dark. That is why the editorial guidelines for Taiwanese commercial TV stations state: “In news reports, and particularly in reports about the progress of a crime, even the simulation of a part of the plot is strictly forbidden.”
Despite this, in their reporting on the Bali murders, TV news channels entered the realm of news drama.
Media outlets employing sensationalism and drama in their reporting have been criticized by academics and media practitioners abroad for the “Hollywoodization” of the news media.
Taiwanese media have had to change their longstanding saying that “news reporting involves a lot of legwork” to “news reporting involves a lot of acting.”
If they now have to shoulder responsibility for the Hollywoodization of reporting, is it not time to step on the brakes and take a step back?
Hu Yuan-hui is an associate professor of communications at National Chung Cheng University.
Translated by Perry Svensson