When I visited Taiwan earlier this year as part of an SPJ delegation, I expected to encounter a fair number of surprising things. I expected to eat strange sea creatures, find myself lost a few times and meet wonderful, welcoming people. (I didn’t expect to end up in a Taipei emergency room, but that’s a completely different story!) I expected to learn about the importance of a free press in Taiwan, a democratic country forced in a decades-long standoff with China.
What I didn’t expect was to hear, repeatedly, that the Taiwanese press was too free.
Wait, I know what you’re thinking. It’s the same thing that all 10 of us thought when we heard government officials and citizens say those shocking words about the press. Didn’t they realize how crucial a free press is to a free people?
After visiting The China Post, one of Taiwan’s major English-language newspapers, we finally learned why the Taiwanese believe the press is too free. Publisher Jack Huang and reporter James Donald explained that many of the Taiwanese media don’t behave in an ethical manner. They print and say things only the basest of American media would ever consider running.
For example, if they suspected a politician of some kind of wrong-doing, they might print a story alleging that he was having an affair with his secretary. Then they’d sit back and wait for calls from tipsters saying that he was actually embezzling or laundering money, not having an affair. They throw around false accusations trying to find out what the real stories are.
Corrections are never issued for any of these false or outlandish stories. Thus, few people in power in the country trust or respect journalists, because they believe they have too much freedom to print or say anything without holding to a code of ethics.
Everyone was quite surprised, yet pleased, to learn about SPJ’s code of ethics. We explained our reasons for avoiding anonymous sources. We told them why we don’t accept gifts from people we cover. We shared stories of avoiding conflicts of interest in our coverage and why ethics are so important to our profession.
We can learn many important lessons by looking at the perception and behavior of many Taiwanese media outlets. Many of us take for granted the reputations of our newspapers, television stations and magazines. We expect that when we pick up the phone, call a source and toss out our organization’s name, we will receive some degree of cooperation.
We gain that respect and credibility by acting with integrity. When we interview sources, we should be up-front about why we’re calling. We shouldn’t try to mislead or deceive our sources regarding our projects. When we make mistakes, we must correct them promptly, understand how they happened and know how we can prevent them in the future.
When I’m out conducting interviews, people will joke with me that I must get a lot of freebies and benefits as a reporter. They’re shocked to find out that I’ve turned down everything from a free dinner to a ride around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a two-seat race car, all because it is inappropriate for me to receive gifts as a reporter. I have actually had sources tell me they respect journalists more after I’ve explained our code of ethics and the kinds of decisions I make in the name of preserving my journalistic integrity.
In these troubled times for journalism, explaining why we do what we do is so very crucial. Let’s never give our sources and community members a reason to say our press is too free.