Taiwan maintains the distinction of having the freest television and print media in all of Asia, ranking 50th among 180 countries worldwide in a press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, a French nonprofit. But if an outsider had docked on the island in the last few months, he might be forgiven for assuming that all of Taiwan was transfixed on two major news stories: a building-sized art installation in the form of an inflatable yellow duck, which on Dec. 31, 2013, exploded in the waters off of Keelung, a city near the capital Taipei, and a mixed-race Brazilian teenager on a self-discovery tour in Taiwan who rode the metro, ate some dumplings, and, on Jan. 4, made out with a reporter almost twice his age.
While mainland China, Taiwan’s cross-strait rival, continues to keep a tight leash on its media, Taiwan’s freewheeling television, print, and web media — and their penchant for superficial reportage — are causing antipathy among a growing number of its inhabitants.
Over the last decade, Taiwanese media have come to be known for in-your-face, no-holds-barred reporting that manages to be simultaneously sensationalist and mundane. A popular online editorial published Jan. 7 by Taiwanese magazine Business Weekly lamented that important issues — like the county government forcibly taking land in Dapu, Miaoli, a village in northwest Taiwan, and the June 2010 signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement between China and Taiwan — remain underreported. Meanwhile, the island has seen what the editorial calls coverage "of every move" of the Taipei Zoo’s new baby panda for about half a year, and Taiwan’s Yahoo page has created an entire page devoted just to the now-deflated yellow duck, regularly re-posting news articles published in other media outlets.
In a Jan. 6 editorial in China Times, a Taiwanese daily newspaper, media executive Antony G.C. Wu related a personal story of a friend living in Europe who returned to Taiwan after an unspecified period of time abroad, only to be shocked by what the Taiwanese talking heads were saying on-air. The rhetoric included frequent Chinese-language equivalents of "shit," "what the fuck," and other verbal bombs unfit for even some of the crassest U.S. cable news shows. Journalism professor Yang Aili, in a Feb. 12 editorial in the same publication, blamed Taiwan’s media for a lack of international perspective, observing that outlets seemed to attach "more importance to covering car accidents than to important world affairs." (Yang advised readers to sign up for Chinese-language email updates from publications like the U.K.-based Financial Times and U.S.-based New York Times, instead of relying on the Taiwanese press.) Even users of social media are showing signs of fatigue; a search on Facebook — the social network of choice for young Taiwanese — revealed multiple pages devoted to discussing the problems with Taiwanese media, writ large. On one such page, a user rants in English that "Taiwan’s media sucks," providing "junk-food like news" that turns the audience into "zombies."
The macabre, salacious, and ridiculous stuff populating Taiwanese media certainly enjoys a wide audience. Readership for Taiwan’s print media has waned over the last two decades; but as of March 2013, there were just under five million cable television subscribers in Taiwan, accounting for over 60 percent of households across the island, with news programming ranking second only to movies in viewership in 2012, the most recent time period for which data could be found. But with 17.5 million Taiwanese (about 75 percent of the island’s 23 million inhabitants) wired to the Internet as of May 2012, readers have increasingly been turning to the web for their news. That might help explain why Taiwanese were so intrigued by chatter about that giant yellow duck that 1.5 million people, presumably mostly from Taiwan, travelled to Keelung to snap pictures.
Taiwan’s media have not always enjoyed the freedom they possess (and arguably abuse) today. During Japanese colonial rule from 1895 to 1945 and then also during the martial law period under the Kuomintang government, which lasted from 1949 to 1987 after the Kuomintang fled mainland China after losing the civil war, authorities maintained tight control on Taiwanese press. It wasn’t until 1987 — when then-President Chiang Ching-kuo lifted martial law — that restrictions on news coverage were removed and Taiwan’s media landscape came to life with a new crop of independent print publications and television stations.
Andy Hong, a reporter for Taiwanese newspaper Want Daily and a journalist in Taiwan for 20 years, said that Taiwan’s post-martial law media did not originally run "bloody" or "gossipy" news stories, adding that "newspapers were like those published in the early days of China’s Republican era," after China had toppled two millennia of imperial rule. Instead, Hong said, they thought they had an obligation "to promote cultural literacy." Hong’s colleague Yongfu Lin, who became a reporter with the China Times in 1985 and is now deputy director of Want Daily’s cross-strait news division, said that in the years after martial law, "news reports were very diverse," and the public had "fewer misgivings about the media," partly because journalists were for the first time targeting political figures who were "once considered off-limits." But Hong claimed things changed around 2003, when Hong Kong-based Apple Daily, a web site and broadsheet with a tabloid flair known for publishing color photos of grisly crime scenes and scantily-clad women, entered Taiwan and "immediately attracted readers."
One possible explanation for the domestic attraction of Taiwan’s increasingly inward-looking media is its continued diplomatic isolation at the hands of China, which still considers Taiwan a renegade province. Joe Wei, managing editor of the World Journal, a U.S. and Canada-based Chinese-language newspaper owned by Taiwan’s United Daily News, said he believes the lack of opportunities to participate in international organizations has led to a "loss of interest in things going on outside the island." Hong agreed, saying, "It probably has something to do with the island’s mentality of being a small country." In the China Times editorial, Wu noted that compared to Taiwan’s television media, even China Central Television, a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, covers a wider variety of topics with "both a sense of history and a worldly perspective," adding that the outlet’s performance "is enough to make Taiwan’s television journalists ashamed."
Taiwanese media also reflect — and exploit — a schism between those preferring the island’s current status of de facto independence from mainland China and those who want something more formal. Strong political beliefs among Taiwanese, Hong said, have emboldened media outlets to reveal their own political character, thus cleaving the country’s media landscape into two halves, leading to highly biased reporting of almost any political or economic issue by media outlets sympathetic to one or the other political cause.
To be sure, Taiwanese investigative journalists do occasionally break real stories. As early as 2005, Taiwan’s media began reporting on problems with the island’s electronic toll collection system, which most recently has come under fire for overcharging motorists. The magazine Business Today, a reputable business weekly, published an exclusive in May 2013 exposing the presence of carcinogenic additives in a popular brand of soy sauce sold in Taiwan, touching off a wide-reaching scandal involving some of the island’s most well-known food companies, and prompting the government to take additional steps to ensure the safety of all its food products. And in December 2013, Taiwan’s television and print media reported on accusations that a technology company in the southern city of Kaohsiung secretly dumped wastewater into rivers, leading to further government investigation.
It’s heartening to know that Taiwan’s press has the capacity to cover real stories, when it wants to. But in the end, Taiwanese journalists and media critics say, it is the public’s decision to either tune in or tune out that will ultimately shape the direction of news content in Taiwan in the years to come. The public’s following a policy of "no watching, no clicking, no responding" to trivial news, the Business Weekly column argues, is the only way Taiwanese media will change. The prognosis is not good. It might "take decades before seeing results," the column continues, even if the public does change its consumptions habits. If it doesn’t, the next generation will continue to be "bombarded by brain-dead news."