National Taiwan University
The media environment in Taiwan is among the freest and most competitive in Asia, even if mainland China continues to exert economic and political pressure on some outlets. The political and media story of the year has been the sudden rise of a conservative populist mayor with a national profile.
‘Goods will flow out, people will flood in, and Kaohsiung will become a rich city’, declared Han Kuo-yu, the newly elected mayor of Taiwan’s third-largest city, in an inauguration ceremony shown across Taiwan. The dark-horse mayoral candidate from the pro-unification Nationalist Party (KMT) captured national headlines with promises to focus on the economy, to show no tolerance for political protest, and to bypass long-standing laws barring Chinese investment in real estate. Major news outlets rewarded Han’s populist rhetoric with coverage that drew still more attention, in an echo of successful populist campaigns in other countries.
At least two factors help to explain what came to be called the ‘Han Wave’. The first was the campaign’s media strategy in a pluralistic environment dominated by private sector, often partisan TV news outlets. Han relied heavily on streams carried live on social media, and supporters were organised to disseminate pro-Han messages online. These messages would have reached large numbers of Taiwanese, given that 75% of our respondents used social media sites like Facebook and Line.
At the same time, Han’s positions drew glowing coverage from the pro-Beijing Chung Tien News channel, which devoted significant time to Han’s populist campaign. The relationship proved mutually beneficial: while Han gained attention, Chung Tien’s ratings climbed, with the share of respondents who use the network weekly rising nearly 10 percentage points in our survey (to 44%). Other market-driven news outlets were forced to follow suit, covering Han’s campaign heavily – and, according to critics, often quite uncritically.
There have also been concerns about possible interference from mainland China, with observers noting the large number of foreign IP addresses amongst Han’s supporters on social media. It was also noted that the owners of some of the TV channels (like Chung Tien and TVBS) had significant interests in China which may be influencing their editorial line. At one stage TVBS shelved an interview in which the US de facto ambassador warned about external forces attempting to manipulate public opinion.
In response to concerns, both citizens and politicians filed official complaints against Chung Tien with Taiwan’s National Communication Commission (NCC), charging that the network produced false news stories and violated professional norms in devoting disproportionate coverage to Han’s campaign. It fined the network US$32,000 for breaching fact-checking principles. Chung Tien responded by accusing the agency of suppressing press freedom and attacking regulators personally in news programmes, which in turn sparked a student demonstration against the media outlet for abusing its power.
One bright spot is that this turmoil may improve the standing of public media, historically weak in Taiwan. The network is the most trusted in our survey, though not competitive in terms of audience (offline use: 16%). Media reform groups have urged Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan to pass the Public Media Act in 2019, which would improve funding and support for major public media.
Niche outlets dedicated to quality journalism have also seen modest successes. The Commonwealth Media Group, which grew out of a respected business magazine, has developed several digital news channels. The group enjoyed growing online use (13%) and relatively high trust (6.41) in our latest survey. Meanwhile The Reporter, an independent news organisation, has continued to provide award-winning investigative stories on environmental issues, children’s welfare, and labour issues. The outlet has helped to create an ecosystem of public interest journalism by working with freelance reporters.
The spread of unreliable information remains a problem in Taiwan. In September 2018, a false story about how the Chinese Embassy in Japan had helped rescue a number of Taiwanese tourists in an airport near Osaka after a typhoon was widely reported by the media. The Taiwanese media blamed local officials for responding too slowly. The subsequent pressure on the Taiwanese Embassy in Japan may have contributed to the death of one official who later committed suicide.
Meanwhile Yahoo! News remains the most used online news source in Taiwan (51% weekly reach). It provides a convenient one-stop for news from multiple news providers along with email, blogs, and games. Yahoo! does not provide direct revenue for news providers but it does generate referral traffic for publishers from the prominent links to additional news stories. In the last two years, Yahoo! Taiwan has started to provide more of its own content including commentaries, online polls, and discussions.
Traditional media sources such as television and print are becoming less important while digital and social media have become more widely used. Taiwanese love their smartphones which are used by more than three-quarters (76%) of our survey sample to access news content. Computers have become relatively less important over time.
Trust in news is down 4 percentage points to 28% with Taiwanese frequently exposed to misinformation through both mainstream and social media. Fact-checking Taiwan, an independent group, has publicly urged the social media giant Line to establish an internal verification operation along the lines of Facebook’s fact-checking partnerships.