In response to the large number of complaints received regarding the disproportionate television news coverage of certain candidates during the 2018 local elections, NCC called on the Central Election Commission to investigate and determine whether any violations of the Public Officials Election and Recall Act occurred during this time. NCC also requested the National Chengchi University’s Department of Journalism to compile data on the content of each news channel’s election coverage during the 2018 election campaigns. The data revealed that news coverage of election-related topics increased substantially throughout the campaigns, of which the elections for the six special municipalities received even greater exposure on national news channels; it also revealed that by dedicating greater frequency of coverage, and thus exposure, certain news channels were noticeably partial towards certain candidates.
Through the disclosure of such information, the NCC aims to deepen understanding in society of the role broadcast media plays during election campaigns. Moreover, by providing the public with objective and scientific statistical analyses, the commission also aims to facilitate a level of heteronomous control in conjunction with self-regulation; the results of the study can also serve as a basis for future NCC policy making.
As directed by the NCC, the study was conducted from November 10- 23, two weeks prior to the 2018 local elections, observing a total of eleven news channels: Taiwan Television (TTV) News, China Television (CTV) News, China Television Service (CTS) News and Info, Public Television Service (PTS), Next TV News, ERA TV News, Eastern Broadcasting Company (EBC) News, CTiTV News, Formosa TV (FTV) News, SET TV News, and TVBS News.
The observational subject was “candidate” amid daily news reports during specific time periods during the day: 07:00-08:00, 12:00-13:00, 19:00-20:00, as well as 00:00-01:00 the following day. Each news report was categorized under a candidate. Records were made of the frequency, total time, and percentage of reports on each candidate by day, week, and electoral district. To minimize errors in the statistics and ensure the reliability of the study, the data was checked twice after entry.
Analysis of the statistics compiled during this period revealed the following:
- Television plays a key role in mass media
The study shows that during the time period of the local elections, major television news channels played a key role in mass media; this was manifested by running substantial coverage on election-related topics, thereby making information accessible to citizens and supporting the development of democratic constitutionalism.
- A considerable proportion of airtime of each channel was dedicated to election-related content
Each channel dedicated a significant proportion of airtime to election-related content. Results showed that in both frequency and total time, PTS dedicated the lowest proportions (20.38% of the total number of reports, 23.67% of the total number of seconds); meanwhile, CTiTV News dedicated the highest proportions (69.66% of the total number of reports, 76.7% of the total number of seconds).
Due to its status as a public broadcaster, PTS differed from other channels with a lower proportion of election news coverage; similarly, a significant difference can be found between terrestrial and satellite news channels.
- Electoral news focused mainly on candidates of the six special municipalities
In terms of both frequency and total time, the Kaohsiung City election was dedicated the most time, followed by the elections in Taipei City, New Taipei City, and Taichung City. Consequently, it may be concluded that there was disproportionate coverage of certain candidates, for whom news channels devoted more resources to in their reports; though this may be explained by the fact that this study observed mainly national news channels, in which candidates of the six special municipalities would be prioritized due to editorial and resource limitations, consequently resulting in fewer local candidates being reported on national channels. Nonetheless, national channels should remain objective towards different political parties, regions, and especially adversarial candidates within the same electoral district.
- Noticeably greater exposure of certain candidates on certain channels
The five most common candidates reported on (in total time) were Han Kuo-yu, Chen Chi-mai, Ko Wen-je, Hou You-yi, and Pasuya Yao. Analysis of each channel’s five most common candidates reported on in both frequency and total time revealed that certain channels favored certain candidates.
Table 2 in the appended report shows that certain individual candidates received over 50% of the total coverage (in frequency and total time) on CTV News (55% of the total number of reports, 60% of the total number of seconds) and on CTiTV News (54% of the total number of reports, 52% of the total number of seconds), demonstratinga 50% greater ratio of exposure rate compared to the channels’ second most common candidate reported on (CTV News, 4% of the total number of reports, 3% of the total number of seconds; CTiTV News, 5% of the total number of reports, 5% of the total number of seconds).
Table 3 shows that while CTV News slightly decreased this disparity, CTiTV News still had a difference of over 50% between its most reported candidate (57% of the total number of reports, 62% of the total number of seconds) and its second most reported candidate (7% of the total number of reports, 6% of the total number of seconds).
From the complaints received during the local elections and the observed statistical results of this scientific study, the NCC concludes that a deviation from the principle of impartiality was present on certain news channels. In January of 2016, the Satellite Broadcasting Act amendment was passed with bipartisan support, where Article 27 states: “the produced and broadcasted news and comments shall pay attention to fact verification and principles of fairness,” and that “the produced and broadcasted news [shall not violate] the principle of fact verification and cause damage on public interest.” Therefore, all television media should proactively make reference to the aforementioned Article, paying attention to the principles of fact verification and impartiality.
Television media has a high contact rate and the widest age range of viewers amongst all media; therefore, its news reports are not only immensely influential and able to set the tone of public discourse, but also generate a consonance effect whereby people’s attitudes and opinions change. Thus, asides from being a primary source of information for those in the society, it has significant implications for freedom of speech and the consolidation of democracy. Free elections and freedom of expression are both critical features of Taiwan’s democratic society. News media must be a reliable and perform their role as the “Fourth Estate” to advance Taiwan’s electoral culture.
NCC stresses that the majority of advanced democracies, in order to protect the rights of all, adopt a combination of self-regulation, heteronomous control, and state regulation. Asides from the mandate that the media professionally fulfill their social responsibilities, there is also the obligation to empower citizens with the tool of heteronomous control through the disclosure of information. Legal supervision by administrative agencies should be the last resort to restrain biased news reports and commentaries that may affect the integrity of Taiwan’s democratic society.
This study concludes that as an important means to elicit conversation, results of observations such as this one will be released periodically based on the principle of impartiality embodied in the Satellite Broadcasting Act, benefiting society by deepening understanding of the production and selection of topics of news reports in an objective manner. It will also help citizens exercise heteronomous control over the media, and promote autonomous self-regulation within the media, thus creating a healthy and safe media environment for the public.