In Taiwan, Citizen Journalism Fights Censors and Sensation
It was a tough time for Taiwanese media.
On December 11, 2008 I walked into the brightly decorated offices of Taiwan Public Television Service (PTS). PTS has a core mission to broadcast 'in service of the public interest, maintain independent media operation and defend freedom of speech'-- unusual pursuits in the Chinese-language press.
I was there to talk about Peopo.org, their citizen journalism platform, but the drama of the past week hung in the air.
Two days earlier the government's controlling Kuomintag (KMT) party had proposed legislation demanding item-by-item programming approval for PTS. This was adding insult to injury; half of PTS' $38 million USD budget has been frozen for nearly a year, to "dire impact." And if the measure goes to vote, the outcome is almost certain: 3/4 of ths legislature, and President Ma Ying-Jeou, are members of the KMT part.
The move also follows an October attempt by KMT to influence seats on the PTS board of directors.
In response to the proposal, the next day PTS published half-page statements in every Chinese-language daily in Taiwan--as well as on the PTS homepage--asserting that, "we will take whatever steps necessary to protect the freedom of public media and the core democratic values that the people of Taiwan have cultivated at great cost."
Taiwan's media lies at an unlikely cross-section. Studies rank Taiwan's media as simultaneously Asia's freest and least credible press.
For a country with a population of 22 million, the media environment is disproportionately crowded. Taiwan boasts eight 24-hour news channels, 20 evening newscasts, 4,000 magazines, 2,500 newspapers, 200 radio stations and 82 satellite trucks.
One result of the competition? A level of sensationalism that would make Rupert Murdoch blush.
Reporters regularly prompt eyewitness and alleged offenders to make wild quote-ready statements or take degrading photo-worthy positions. And newspapers readily publish graphic scenes of violence, corpses and victims.
When I ask PTS’s head of International, Leh-Chyun Lin, about the state of Taiwanese media, he is unequivocal: “It’s not healthy—it’s sick.”
So how to challenge the specter of censorship and fight the tide of sensationalism in Taiwan?
Against the odds, citizen journalism--that Western news boogeyman--is pretty well positioned for the task.
When I meet with Peopo’s founder, former PTS CEO Yuan-Hui Hu, I learn the name Peopo comes from the phrase 'people post', but happens to sounds like the Taiwanese word for 'doing something smart'.
The platform's 2,400 contributors publish content of unusually high quality, especially compared to big media competitors like iReport, and an astounding 1/3 of these are videos submissions. As founder of global citizen journalism platform GroundReport, I know that eliciting great video reporting takes work, and I am impressed.
Then Peopo’s current director, Chief of Interactive Media Chili Yu, tells me that there’s a natural synergy between the platform’s sophisticated video and PTS’ two nightly newscasts. As a result, over 250 videos have been aired live on PTS channels.
Like the 2008 election’s CNN YouTube debates, this year Peopo served as clearing house for more than 400 citizen video questions for the presidential candidate debates. But Peopo took the interaction a step further, providing the selected video producers with media training, and allowing them to ask follow-up questions live, in-person at the presidential debate.
Talk about an extension of democracy. Candidates couldn’t skirt the issue or discuss the issue they preferred to address, as happened frequently throughout the US election.
Peopo takes proactive measures to keep standards high: they host about 100 citizen journalism workshops per year, offer instructional videos on the site, and require ID authentication for all user registrations. Recently, the Chinese language version of Google News began indexing Peopo stories. According to Peopo, the biggest guidelines problem they’ve run into is commercial posts on the site.
To PTS, the value citizen journalism seems obvious. And when you’re listening to them tell it, with a backdrop of encroaching government media control and scandal-driven drivel, it seems obvious to you, too. By the end of the meeting, I began to wonder why PBS, with a budget far beyond PTS’ paltry annual $28 million USD, hasn’t tried the same. Jim Lehrer’s "NewsHour" alone costs about the same as PTS’s full budget.
According to Mr. Yu, Peopo’s annual operating budget is $200,000 USD, including four full-time employees, which is hardly prohibitive. When you consider the return in free content development and online audience growth in the young adult age demographic--quite elusive to public broadcasters--Peopo is probably already paying for itself.
And of course, there’s the even more vital manner of keeping PTS alive. I ask Mr. Lin of the International department if they intend to rely of public support to fight KMT’s censorship proposition. Lin laughs.
“Public support is all we have!” he says emphatically.
He’s smiling, but he’s not joking.
And indeed, it was public support that finally pressured Taiwan’s Government Information Office (GIO) to hurriedly reject the KMT measure, saying, “PTS will not be censored by the government in advance or afterwards.”
The denouncement came the day after PTS published its public statements. PTS believes that without the public ads and outcry, GIO would have never come out in their defense.
Citizen journalism may be another way to engage and enfranchise Taiwan’s public to pursue that original public broadcasting mission of maintaining an independent media. If so, it could not come at a more urgent time in Taiwan’s contemporary history.
Before I leave, I ask Taiwan’s public broadcaster how they expect the censorship struggle to play out.
“I foresee a bumpy road,” says Mr. Lin.
Hopefully, he’ll have some help.
Tags: Peopo , Taiwan , Citizen Journalism , Censorship , Censor
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