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Taiwan is in need of discerning media

Since the opening up of television stations in Taiwan, the plethora of TV talk shows that ensued have provided people who formerly had no way of making their opinions heard with a chance to participate in debates on public affairs, promoting the development of civil society

Taipei Times
Wednesday, March 31, 2004

By Peng Yun

In recent years, my study sponsored by the National Science Council has focused on the media, social capital and political trust. The basis of my hypothesis is that since the opening up of television stations in Taiwan, the plethora of TV talk shows that ensued have provided people who formerly had no way of making their opinions heard with a chance to participate in debates on public affairs, promoting the development of civil society.

However, over the last few years, we have seen talk show upon talk show appear on our TV screens, creating large numbers of celebrity hosts and guests, and this was even more apparent during the election period. But how much does this actually contribute to social capital? And has it improved political trust?

Western countries attached great importance to social capital at the end of the 20th century, with the belief that social divisions need not be resolved through violent confrontation. Instead, a democratic society should be based on the mutual trust and cooperation of everyone within the community. The media has the role of being a catalyst in this process, providing information to everyone in civil society. Therefore, even if differences do exist, conflict can be resolved by mutual trust through peaceful means, highlighting the essence of democracy.

Taiwanese cable TV news stations have gained fame and profit over the last few years, with relatively low running costs. All they need are a few SNG vans manned with low-paid youngsters right out of school, scouting the streets for anything newsworthy enough to push up their viewer ratings.

Chat shows will never be short of guests who know that sufficient exposure assures them celebrity status: you can see them every night, talking about everything and anything, desperate to come up with a fresh take on their subject.

During the election period the news channels stood to gain much from covering election rallies, but the damage this has done to social capital exceeds the benefits. The crowds that gathered outside the Presidential Office after the election added to a general feeling of foreboding and dissipated the trust that people had in certain institutions and individuals. Given this, what kind of social capital are the people of Taiwan to rely on in their quest for a civil society? And how are they to continue to put their trust in Taiwan's political institutions?

Of course, political leanings toward a particular political party or candidate are also common in the media of democratic countries in the West, but the news media should never lose sight of the principles of justice and objectivity.

Hate speech resulting from the Oklahoma blasts led to criticism and reflections within the academic world and the news media, and despite the fact that there are still echoes of it within the minority media and on the Internet, it is currently frowned upon within the mainstream media.

And the media in this country? How many political stances and demonstrations of emotion are we going to find within the newspapers? The superficiality and narrowness of the TV news, the subject matter of talk shows, together with comments by the hosts and countless guests, are all a far cry from what we should expect from the media in a civil society.

Taiwan is now at a turning point. The media have a responsibility to prevent Taiwanese society from sinking any further and put an emphasis on love and compassion. The media are, after all, a tool of society, and should publish and report more things beneficial to social capital, and restrict the reportage of any matters that could damage it.

Peng Yun is a professor in the department of journalism at the National Chengchi University.

TRANSLATED BY PAUL COOPER

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