Taiwan: Tycoon media owners, sensationalism, and political polarisation

Taiwanese media interviewing the DPP legislator Ker Chien-ming. Taipei, Taiwan. August 08, 2020. Photo: Walid Berrazeg

Taiwan holds the second-highest position in Asia in the RSF World Press Freedom rankings, but for some journalists working in local media owned by powerful tycoons the landscape can be brutal. Some outlets use ‘press freedom’ as an excuse to push beyond the boundaries of factual reporting, leaving their journalists at once distrusted by the public, overworked, and sometimes put in ethically compromising positions and with little power to lobby for their rights. For others, usually those involved in long form investigative journalism, their outlets offer adequate support and, perhaps, more respect from the public. 

According to a National Communications Committee report released in May, 56% of the population rely on cable TV as their primary source of news, with emerging media — including online media outlets — accounting for 33% and around 2% relying on traditional print . However the Digital News Report 2020 released by Oxford University’s Reuters Institute showed that public trust in the media in Taiwan had fallen to just 24%, the third lowest of the 40 countries in the survey. 

Taiwan’s media landscape might best be described as somewhat chaotic and hugely competitive – for example there are eight 24-hour news channels for a population of 23.5 million, and while Taiwan has an inordinate number of SNG trucks, in recent years there has been a tendency to fill out schedules with neighbourhood gossip type coverage sourced from the ‘3 screens’: mobile phone, CCTV and dashcam footage largely obtained through scouring local messaging boards. 

“Anytime you look at the media on TV you wonder if it is news or if it is a circus. The treatment of the news is closer to a circus,” said Cédric Alviani, the East Asia Bureau chief for RSF in an interview with N3 Magazine. “It’s very sensationalist rather than serious journalism.”

Although there are print outlets with a strong ethical standards there is a strong streak of sensationalism running through several privately owned media outlets, which are by far the most consumed by the general public, with most TV media maintaining an online presence as well. Although the Reuters Digital News Report 2020 showed that the public trusts the publicly funded Public Television Service (PTS) the most, it has the second lowest viewing figures. In a hugely competitive market journalists working on daily news, both in print and broadcast media, are pressured to produce a high volume of news on a short turnaround. 

Alviani says that the highly competitive environment includes pressure on journalists to produce a high volume of content for ‘clicks’ leading to fake news and low-quality content being rife. 

It is not unusual for daily news outlets to pick up on each other’s stories and perpetuate poor-quality content cycles, with some English language outlets also relying on translation of such stories to generate clicks without further fact-checking which occasionally results in unwitting editors picking up the story and running it in international outlets.

Alviani says that Taiwan is not alone in facing such challenges as conflict of interest in the ownership of the media, sensationalistic treatment of the news, and political polarization of the media. 

“And all this impacts press freedom, defined as the freedom for the people to receive quality media contents which allow them to make an educated decision,” said Alviani. “So, I would say Taiwan is in trend with most democracies in the world.”

As with other countries, Taiwan lacks regulations to ensure editorial independence. In some outlets tycoon media owners pressure the editorial department and influence news coverage, either to advance their own business or political interests, a situation that Alviani says can sometimes “border on disinformation.”

“You need to have limitations to freedoms. That of course are as small as possible, as limited as possible. That are decided and accepted by the people. Otherwise it is the rule of the jungle and the strongest is going to do whatever they want. And somehow the Taiwanese media environment is the rule of the jungle. The strongest like the big cable operators and big media groups do what they want in the name of press freedom, but this is not press freedom as we define it.”

The resulting environment is strewn with challenges for journalists. According to the Media Rights Survey of Taiwan’s News Reporters in 2020, a collaboration by the Association of Taiwan Journalists (ATJ) and Taiwan Media Watch, 30% of frontline journalists reported pressure from their media boss and with another 25% reporting job uncertainty as their top concerns.

On May 25 the Taiwan Apple Daily print version folded with just five days’ notice and 300 staff lost their jobs. Five hundred were retained to run the online version, however in June Next Digital announced their intention to sell citing operating losses. Both were still owned by Jimmy Lai and, while relying on tabloid tactics to attract readers, Taiwan has lost a relatively politically neutral print outlet which was perceived to suffer little in the way of political editorial interference. 

According to ATJ workshops have bought up issues with the freedom to report such as being asked to play down unfavourable coverage of their specific political parties or politicians or non-routine review by supervisors. 

Alviani says that these issues disproportionately affect early career journalists, “They do not have much experience with working on the field so if the media is asking for them to engage in things that go against ethics, they won’t necessarily be able to realise it. Basically journalists in Taiwan are considered as employees and they do not really have the possibility go against a request from the management that would violate basic journalistic ethics.”

“Journalists are not able to lobby for themselves in Taiwan. They don’t have the support of the public. But it’s not the journalist’s fault. They are some kind of scapegoat because the poor-quality article may be signed with the journalist’s name. But the journalist may not actually be responsible for some of the contents.” 

Alviani says this environment leads many journalists to quickly move out into adjacent fields such as PR or marketing. The high turnover in turn leads to a lack of mentorship for journalists. 

Huan Cheng Lin, an investigative journalist formerly of the Apple Daily and currently United Daily News, says that while he has never experienced pressure from his bosses at either outlet there is a lack of opportunity for formal training “At many media companies, there is no training for young editors and journalists. We learned from our seniors and executives.”

While Lin says that the situation varies greatly from outlet to outlet in general he describes the mentorship offered as being “not enough.”

However, Lin also observes that in his eight years of experience he has never faced any pressure from a government agency in the course of his reporting and has always felt that his outlet would back him up if any of his investigations led to threatened legal action. 

Will Yang, who currently works for the online long form investigative outlet The Reporter, echoes Huan’s confidence in his outlet to provide support with legal issues — which are not uncommon in Taiwan where both the publisher and the journalist can be the subject of lawsuits — and ease of access to various sources, adding that most of the public are amenable to being interviewed by a publication such as the Reporter. 

Yang drily observes that the Reporter as an outlet that often covers labour issues naturally takes care to treat their journalists fairly. However, Yang started out in a small news agency where he says there was a total lack of mentorship. Fresh on the job he recalls being sent out alone to cover a news conference with no guidance on what to expect or how to handle the situation.  

“I would say that the average stay [at a media outlet] in Taiwan is around two years. One year is quite common. Especially for the new generation.” Yang attributes this to insufficient pay and a vicious circle “because they know you will leave in quite a short time so they will squeeze you as much as they can.”

Taiwan’s English language outlets boast a strong ecosystem of new media, with just one daily, The Taipei Times, the sister publication of the Liberty Times still maintaining a physical print run. 

Internationally Taiwan has seen an upswell of coverage beyond the rather tired cleavage of relating every story to Beijing’s probable reaction. In part this might be attributed to more foreign correspondents being based full time in Taiwan — according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Foreign Media Services Section there are currently 133 foreign journalists working for 75 outlets registered in Taiwan, an overall increase over the past two years — several of these have made good use of having the ear of their editor to explore local stories from a Taiwan-centric viewpoint.

William Yang (no relation to the Will Yang above), the president of the Taiwan Foreign Correspondent Club, notes that although there has been an increase due to the geopolitical conflicts between China and the US and other countries, many may not stay long, with some already having moved on to other posts.

Several media-related NGOS, including RSF, and news agencies, including Reuters and Bloomberg, maintain bureaus in Taipei. Yang also estimates that there are around ten foreign correspondents using Taiwan as a base to cover wider Asia.

One of these is the Telegraph’s Asia Correspondent, Nicola Smith, who first came to Taiwan as a freelancer in 2016. Smith was previously based in Brussels for the Sunday Times covering the European Union and then in India, covering South Asia. She describes Taiwan as both a fascinating news story in itself and an ideal base for covering the region.

Erin Hale, who previously freelanced in Hong Kong and Cambodia, arrived in late 2019 with the intention of combining language studies with reporting. She agrees that Taiwan has plenty to offer for journalists. “Taiwan is the most open society in Asia. I think that in itself means we should learn more about what they are doing and how. People forget about that … but even though it’s open there’s still pushback from traditional culture and political groups. There’s a lot going on.”

Smith also confirms “a huge uptick in interest in Taiwan stories since moving here in 2016. Taiwan’s strategic importance in a volatile region has become much more apparent, particularly in light of Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong and rising tensions between China and the rest of the world have thrown a bigger spotlight on Taipei.” 

Smith also mentions that Taiwan has been at the centre of Covid-19 coverage because of its successful handling of the pandemic. “There has been a lot of interest from my editors in finding out more about how Taiwan managed to keep its case count down. More generally, my editors have been keen to run stories on the semiconductor industry, the drought, gay marriage, and more quirky tales about Taiwanese society like the fondness of putting dogs in prams.” 

Although journalists must be sponsored by a specific outlet to gain residency based on their work, compared to other postings Smith says that Taiwan has “the easiest bureaucracy to deal with” and that she “always had the impression that foreign journalists are very welcome”.

However once on the ground there are still some challenges to be faced.  

“I found it much harder at first to find fixer/translators here than in previous countries I’ve worked in,” says Smith. “Perhaps I was looking in the wrong places but there didn’t seem to be a pool of people keen to do this kind of work. Unfortunately I don’t have the budget for a full time assistant but I now have a small circle of freelance colleagues who I work with when I need help with Taiwanese stories. We work on an equal basis with joint bylines.”

Hale echoes these sentiments, adding that “there’s a lot of bureaucracy and I think if [journalists considering basing themselves in Taiwan without local language skills] don’t plan to learn Chinese they probably need a local partner. You can work without it, but I think you would really miss a lot.” 

Yang is also generally positive about the experience of foreign correspondents. “Taiwan has a very open and free society that values freedom of the press and the rule of law is also upheld very well here,” he notes, adding that one downside is that the previous lack of international media presence means it can be much harder to get experts that research on areas that are not related to Taiwan to do interviews. 

In terms of access to Smith says that it compares well to other postings, aside from the language barriers that sometimes pop up. 

“Politicians and officials, even at ministerial level, are generally very open to interviews and speaking with journalists. MOFA are always very helpful and so is the presidential office. Understandably, it’s harder to get access to the very top echelons of government or to political party leaders but that’s normal for any country.”

Alongside the general positives Smith also cites the “relatively cheap cost of living compared to other media hubs like Singapore or Hong Kong…and the fact that Taiwan is an interesting and easy place to live. The one drawback that I would warn journalists about is that not every country has an embassy in Taiwan so this can occasionally be a hindrance to getting a visa for travel. It doesn’t happen often but I did find it an issue when I needed to go to Bangladesh to cover the Rohingya crisis.”

Both William Yang and Alviani hope that the influx of foreign correspondents and increased attention in international media may have some positive knock-on effects for media in Taiwan. Yang suggests it may help to bring attention to areas that are not particularly being highlighted in Taiwan by local or foreign media before and offer different perspectives to look at Taiwan.

“We hope that it can contribute to raise the average quality of journalism in Taiwan,” says Alviani. “It can give some examples and provide some guidelines for the young journalists.”

However, Alviani stresses that Taiwan urgently needs reforms to offer a better environment for local journalists. “There have to be efforts made by the government and regulation authorities to raise the overall level of the respect of journalistic ethics in Taiwan.”

“We know it is difficult in the Taiwan context because it used to be ruled by an authoritarian government and every time we are talking about regulating media, people will understand controlling the media. And, of course, factions that want to keep the system as it is are also going to use that wording. It’s very easy to play with words”