A (very) brief case study on media bias | 主流報社的斷章取義:以司徒文演說為例

March 18, 2013 in News 新聞

I’m supposed to be doing productive things today, but an opportunity dropped into my lap I can’t pass up. William A Stanton, former head of the American Institute in Taiwan office in Taipei (read: de facto US ambassador), gave a speech in English on some of the thorniest issues in Taiwan’s side as it looks toward the future. The speech was given to the World Taiwanese Congress, a heavily green organization with a vested interest in moving Taiwan away from trade reliance on [mainland China / China / the PRC… pick one. For the sake of brevity, I’ll be referring to that entity as simply China.]. The full text has been republished over at Michael Turton’s also very green blog, The View from Taiwan.

 

One Speech, Different Interpretations Photo: Wang Yi-sung 王藝菘, Liberty Times

 

Summary:

After finishing this “study,” I found that quantitative analysis of how each paper reports the same story is not very useful because some points are important and others aren’t; the numbers don’t show which points were overlooked. Doubtlessly, each paper had space considerations in mind and I have no way of understanding how much this impacted the decisions on what to report. At least in the case of China Times, though, it’s clear that there is some behind-the-scenes motivation going on. Stanton covered a lot of points, and only some of them made it into the papers. Moreover, each paper chose what it felt was the ‘central’ point to focus on. (It’s worth noting that Stanton’s speech was titled something to the effect of National Defense and Taiwan’s Future.)

 

Focusing on the status quo as an illusion: Liberty Times, United Daily News, Central News Agency

Focusing on national defense spending: Apple Daily, China Post (English)

Focusing on over-reliance on China: Taipei Times (English)

Ignoring everything else and focusing on two sentences about nuclear energy: China Times

 

For more detail than you could ever desire, keep reading.

 

The following is a check-list of which parts of the speech were accurately translated by major media outlets. The speech as published at the above link is summarized at the bottom, section-by-section.

 

The Blue Factor: China Times

The China Times report, published Saturday on page A4, is titled “Hard to find new energy sources if nuclear power is abandoned: Stanton” (司徒文:廢核 替代能源難尋). From the headline alone we can see they have taken quite the liberty in refocusing the focus of the article; the name alone of the event in question spells it out:  “End Pro-China Economics, Ensure National Defense” 「終止經濟傾中‧確保國家安全」. Regardless, the blue- (or was it red-?) leaning China Times finds Stanton’s three or four sentences on nuclear power to be more important than that. Interesting.

The article is structured as follows:

  • ¶1: Former AIT director Stanton says it’s easy to say no to nuclear power, but hard to find a solution.
  • ¶2: To maintain Taiwan’s industrial energy use, the only viable energy source other than nuclear power is coal power, but that will bring many other problems, too.
  • ¶3: President Ma has said ending construction on the new nuclear plant might be unconstitutional. DPP head Su, who also spoke at the event, questioned Ma’s understanding of the law for making “insincere” statements that “have no common sense.”
  • ¶4: Su said that all it would take is the Executive Yuan sending a proposal to legislators, and KMT lawmakers would doubtlessly support it.
  • ¶5: Former DPP head Tsai (who may have been at the event? unclear) said that a relevant court ruling actually means that the government can stop construction if it likes as long as it follows certain procedures, indicating that the Ma administration has no interest in doing so.

 

As you can see, of the sections I broke Stanton’s speech into down below, only 1 of 13 is used in the China Times report. And even at that, Stanton’s speech makes up just two out of five paragraphs in the report. This is clearly some selective reporting, as anything related to China, the military, or international affairs has been glossed over.

________________________________

 

The Green Factor: Liberty Times

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Liberty wanted to play up reporting of this event. It broke coverage into two separate reports, one of which focused on Stanton’s speech. The report, “Stanton reminds Taiwanese: Cross-strait ‘status quo’ is an illusion” (提醒台灣人 司徒文︰兩岸維持現狀是錯覺), really betrays the paper’s leanings by choosing the word “reminds,” thereby implying that this is a fact and everyone should realize it in case they forgot. Much of the text is almost identical to a longer report by the Central News Agency.

 

  • ¶1: Former AIT director Stanton said that Taiwanese favor the status quo with China, but that status quo is an illusion because Taiwan cannot single-handedly decide its future. The Taiwanese people need a better understanding of the challenges they face and must reevaluate their opinions on defense spending, he said.
  • Taiwan must strengthen defenses
  • ¶2: Taiwan needs to improve national defense by putting more money into it, said Stanton. Decreasing support for the military will hurt morale, as proven by recent cases of military espionage.
  • ¶3: Stanton gave an example of such espionage, saying it damages national security and hurts US confidence in Taiwan
  • Not optimistic on all-volunteer military
  • ¶4: Stantion says that Taiwan’s defense spending is considered unrealistically low and it will cost a lot to transition to an all-volunteer force.
  • ¶5: Stanton was at an event held by the World Taiwan Congress and Taiwan Nation Alliance. 
  • ¶6: He said that Taiwanese people need to gain a better understanding of security issues, rethink defense spending, and overcome short-sighted protectionism to attract foreign investors and open the door for free-trade agreements.
  • ¶7: He said the concept of a status quo is “problematic” because things keep changing, China keeps growing, and Taiwan keeps relying on it economically.
  • Cross-strait relations constantly changing
  • ¶8: The future of cross-strait ties isn’t up to the Taiwanese alone, he said, and noone knows how patient China is willing to be.
  • ¶9: He said there is no evidence that the Communist Party will support democracy or any challenge to its power. Instead, its growth has brought about more nationalism and expansionism.

 

There are many notable omissions here, including Stanton’s criticisms of the ECFA precedent (you’d think Liberty would love to sink their teeth into that), corporate espionage, brain drain, low birth rates, and his vaguely pro-nuclear power message (no surprise that was left out). Also it is extremely bizarre that the report chooses not to mention the time and circumstances under which he gave his speech until halfway through, making for an extremely unnerving bit of time-travel for the eyes. Even so, it scores far better than China Times by covering 6 of the 13 categories I broke Stanton’s speech into.

 

The Unknown Factor: United Daily News

I’ve been told time and time again that UDN is very blue, but my time burning out my eyeballs in front of various news media has yet to prove that claim. The UDN headline is very similar to Liberty’s: “Taiwanese hopes to maintain cross-strait status quo are an illusion: Stanton” (司徒文:台盼兩岸維持現狀是錯覺).

 

  • ¶1: Former AIT director Stanton said that Taiwanese favor the status quo with China, but that status quo is an illusion because things are constantly changing.
  • ¶2: He was speaking at an event
  • ¶3: He said that popular opinion tends to support the status quo, but in actuality, Taiwan is constantly moving towards China economically. 
  • ¶4: He said the status quo is an illusion because things change and Taiwan is growing closer to China; meanwhile, the future of cross-strait relations are not up to Taiwan alone, and it is unknown how much patience China has in terms of keeping up the status quo.
  • ¶5: He said Taiwan has improved trade with China at the expense of other nations, which will only make Taiwan’s isolation worse. The political divide between the two also means that China will be able to use economic clout against Taiwan.
  • ¶6: He called on Taiwan to open its economy further, overcome short-sighted protectionism, attract foreign investment, and introduce tougher laws against corporate espionage. He also said that more money needs to spent on national defense.

 

Like the other reports, UDN has left out anything about demographics, brain drain, or criticisms of the ECFA. It covers 4 of 13 of the sections in the speech. Even so, there was no discernible bias of green or blue from the reporting, and it in fact made explicit some of the edgier criticisms lodged by Stanton. It’s also worth noting that UDN went with “China” (中國) rather than “the mainland” or “mainland China.”

 

The Unknown Factor: Apple Daily

 Apple Daily had a very brief report on the event which mentioned Stanton only in the context of Tsai Ing-wen’s speech. It’s titled “Tsai Ing-wen expects problems in implementing volunteer military” (完全實施募兵制 蔡英文質疑有問題).

 

  • ¶1: In regard to former AIT chief Stanton reminding everyone that the cross-strait “status quo” is an illusion while pointing out that Taiwan will have trouble implementing an all-volunteer military, ex-DPP head Tsai said that Stanton’s observations were worth discussing.
  • ¶2: Tsai said that turning to an all-volunteer military will take lots of money, meaning it may be difficult to accomplish.
  • ¶3: Tsai said that despite what President Ma says, cross-strait relations are not stable on any fundamental level, and we should consider what Stanton had to say.

 

Apple really downplayed the event, the speech, and all of the good points that Stanton brought up (especially the ones about the media….). I’d guess this is because nobody was stabbed, beheaded, or naked, so it wasn’t really worth the time for this paragon of print media.

 

The Government Factor: Central News Agency

The government’s CNA had two reports. The first one, “Maintaining cross-strait status quo is an illusion: Stanton” (司徒文:兩岸維持現狀是錯覺), focuses on Stanton’s speech.

  • ¶1: Former AIT chief Stanton said that Taiwanese tend to support the status quo, but since Taiwan is becoming reliant on China, the idea of a status quo is problematic.
  • ¶2: He was giving a speech at an event.
  • ¶3: He said that past opinion polls show most people support the status quo, while few support independence and even fewer unification.
  • ¶4: But he said the idea of a status quo is problematic as things keep changing and China keeps rising.
  • ¶5: He argues that Taiwan cannot unilaterally decide the state of cross-strait affairs, and the mainland may get impatient if things don’t go its way, leading to unforeseen consequences.
  • ¶6: He said there is no evidence that the Communist Party will support democracy or any challenge to its power. Instead, its growth has brought about more nationalism and expansionism.
  • ¶7: He said that Taiwanese people need to gain a better understanding of security issues, rethink defense spending, and overcome short-sighted protectionism to attract foreign investors.
  • ¶8: Meanwhile, Stanton spoke on nuclear energy. He said that experts he’s consulted say Taiwan needs nuclear power to maintain its industries  and nothing can replace it but coal power, which comes at a high environmental cost.
  • ¶9: He said it’s easy to say no to nuclear power, but it’s not easy to find an alternative.

 

This report hits a lot of points — 5 out of 13 —  but leaves out all the juicy details of military spending and tactics. Note that CNA uses “China” and “the mainland” interchangeably.

 

The English Factor: China Post

 

China Post, conventionally seen as blue-leaning, titled its article “Taiwan must beef up defense spending: former AIT chief.” In typical CP style, there is a grammar error in the first sentence.

  • ¶1:”Taiwan’s defense spending has been unrealistically low, jeopardizing the its shift toward an all-volunteer military”
  • ¶2:Former AIT chief Stanton said morale is low, citing spying incidents
  • ¶3: The United Evening News reported a defense official dismissed the claims, saying Stanton does not understand Taiwan’s military.
  • ¶4: Speaking at an event, Stanton said it would take a lot of money to transition to an all-volunteer force.
  • ¶5: Taiwan plans to switch to a volunteer force but has met with a lack of enthusiasm.
  • ¶6: Stanton said morale is low, citing spying incidents
  • ¶7: He said China is always eager to get military information from Taiwan.
  • ¶8: Taiwan needs a better understanding of its security issues and must rethink military spending, he said.

 

The China Post chose to focus on the shift to a volunteer force, excluding other parts of the speech (China’s rising power and influence), and covering only 2 out of 13 sections of the speech. It does, however, not use the term “mainland,” so we’re not in crazy technocrat territory here. On the other hand, the extremely brief mention of a vague response by an unnamed government official doesn’t speak well to the paper’s standpoint.

 

The English Factor: Taipei Times

 Spinning our color wheel around, we come to the very green Taipei Times. TT’s report, much like the one in its sister paper, the Liberty Times, also focuses on getting to friendly: “Taiwan increasingly leading toward China: Stanton.” It draws heavily from a report by the Central News Agency by summarizing and shortening without adding anything significant.

 

  • ¶1: Former AIT chief Stanton yesterday “took issue with opinion polls” that show Taiwanese prefer the status quo with China.
  • ¶2: Taiwan is increasingly leaning toward China, meaning the status quo is problematic and an illusion, he said.
  • ¶3: He was speaking at the event, where he said that Taiwan alone cannot decide cross-strait ties, and no one knows how much patience China will have if Taiwan does not do what it wants.
  • ¶4: He said that unification advocates think Taiwan will help democratize China.
  • ¶5: But the Communist Party has given no indication that it will change its ways, he said.
  • ¶6: China’s growing economy has made it “hawkish,” he said
  • ¶7: Taiwan must get a better understanding of its security challenges and increase military spending, he said.
  • ¶8: Declining support for security can be linked to low morale, he said.
  • ¶9: Taiwan needs stronger defense and freer markets, it must appeal to foreign investors, and it needs to pursue trade agreements with other countries, he said.

 

The term “took issue with” is interesting because the context it’s in make it seem like he doubts the veracity of those polls, while he said no such thing in his speech. It is never clarified in the article. Taipei Times scores 4 out of 13. 

________________________________

Stanton’s speech:

Section A: Introduction

  1. This speech is only my personal opinions, but I speak from a lot of experience and with concern for Taiwan
  2. I am worried because Taiwanese people don’t worry enough
  3. Taiwan is an astonishing success story. It has a remarkable economy, much economic freedom, a thriving democracy, and a friendly culture
  4. But people are preoccupied by daily routines and remain vulnerable. Most choose to focus on small issues instead of the big picture of national security, which means military defenses as well as other issues

Section B: The Demographic Challenge

  1. Taiwan has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, which will cause labor shortages, low domestic demand, and decreased tax revenue
  2. Not enough students in schools means not enough educated people to build up a country

 

Section C: Energy Security

  1. Energy is a serious issue compacted by popular disapproval of nuclear power
  2. Taiwan relies on nuclear power and does not have a viable replacement except for fossil fuels, which bring their own problems. It’s easy to say no to nuclear, but alternatives are hard to find

 

Section D: Economic Challenges

  1. Taiwan’s economy is doing quite well, but it is increasingly dependent on China, which is to be expected considering close links between the two

Section E: Trade Dependency

  1. Dependence on China means competitive Chinese companies will turn from customers to competitors
  2. Taiwan has largely ignored trade with other partners and is therefore more suseptible to pressure from Beijing. Trade with other countries would mean more international support, while trade with China could mean the opposite
  3. The ECFA is an unrealistic model for other trade agreements because Taiwan was able to get a lot while giving little in return. The ECFA came easily without requiring Taiwan to make difficult decisions on opening markets. Other trade agreements will be much tougher
  4. The political divide continues to affect the stability of cross-strait trade

 

Section F: Foreign Investment

  1. China is getting a lot of direct investment from Taiwan, which has helped fuel China’s economic machine
  2. Taiwanese money is going into China, but nobody’s money is coming in to replace it
  3. Even if China invests in Taiwan, it will only increase interdependence

 

Section G: Industrial Espionage

  1. Chinese firms offer huge amounts of money for Taiwanese workers who can bring valuable trade secrets with them
  2. China is also known for using hacking to steal information, as with the recent attacks on the NY Times

 

Section H: Brain Drain

  1. Executives and engineers keep being lured to other countries where salaries are higher
  2. That means less foreign investment, less innovation, and less growth in Taiwan

 

Section I: Defense Challenges

  1. China’s threats limit the choices available to Taiwan
  2. China’s defense budget is 14 times greater than Taiwan’s
  3. Despite improved relations, Taiwan needs a strong defensive force as a foundation for negotiations
  4. But defense spending has dropped proportionally over the years while China’s has increased

 

Section J: Taiwan’s Defense Needs

  1. A larger budget is needed for buying arms and for making an all-volunteer military force
  2. It will be difficult to give people incentives to join the military, and developing new strategies and weapons for a smaller force requires money, too

 

Section K: Military Espionage

  1. There is a problem of declining morale, as evidenced by cases of spying for China
  2. Not only does Taiwan lose sensitive information, it undermines US confidence in Taiwan

 

Section L: Status Quo

  1. Most people prefer the status quo, and very few want unification
  2. The idea of a status quo is problematic because the situation is constantly changing, but also because the future of Taiwan is not up to the Taiwanese people alone
  3. Advocates of unification often say China will head toward democratic ideas, but Beijing has grown more nationalistic, expressionistic, and belligerent
  4. The experiences of Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang are not inspiring

 

Section M: What Should Taiwan Do?

  1. There needs to be wider recognition of the security challenges faced, and it needs to show up in elections and media coverage
  2. Taiwan needs to end economic protectionism, attract foreign investment, and clamp down on industrial espionage
  3. People need to be more willing to pay for a strong national defense
  4. None of this will come easily