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Press freedom not at the expense of news quality

  • Press freedom is not just about the quantity of information delivered, but the quality of information needs to be improved as well.

By Ng Wan Wei

Following the phenomenal changes taking place in the world as a result of wireless networks and the growing trend of media digitization, people will no longer need to look to the traditional print media exclusively for the latest information.

Simply put, thanks to the mass media revolution as a consequence of information digitization, members of the public will no longer need to rely on official media. This to a certain extent has assured the public's relatively free access to the world of information.

Information flow transcends all known man-made boundaries. The public can gain access to not only domestic news but also happenings across the globe, even to follow up the latest developments in a certain foreign country thanks to live video streaming.

We cannot deny that indeed information digitization has instituted tremendous changes to people's day-to-day lives and has significantly changed their perception of the world.

Interestingly, information digitization has also brought people closer to politics, and because of that, the surge of civic consciousness across the world in recent years has a positive and direct correlation with information digitization, which to some extent has provided a guaranteed channel for the public to attain information, giving rise to unrestricted press freedom in the cyberspace unattainable under real-life political manipulation.

In Taiwan, an anti-independence journalist whose popular political talk show has been withdrawn, can still have his critical viewpoints aired in his own program on an online video platform, and this is only one of many such instances.

The operation of these independent media platforms or what we call “we media” can be sustained with advertisements or audience viewership alone, and their propagation is way more effective than conventional media, inspiring their audiences to reshape their thoughts from the critical viewpoints they are fed with.

Netizens in general will agree that information digitization is protecting the freedom of information flow, especially at an age of enhanced civic consciousness. The media is seen as a watchdog institution in battling a corrupt regime. In the United States, the press has been accepted as an independently operating “fourth estate” alongside the judicial, executive and legislative branches of the government, with the objective of helping the people oversee the operation of government institutions and departments.

The role played by the media is one of neutrality and objectivity, reporting the facts impartially. Nevertheless, it is well known that the so-called press freedom has been established upon the basis of specific universal values, the two most mainstream of which are capitalism and socialism, which will invariably affect the integrity of political, cultural and even critical viewpoints of the civic society.

While the media has somewhat liberated itself from being exploited as a tool for government propaganda, it has unfortunately also fallen into the hands of capitalists, serving the political cause endorsed by its capitalist owners. There is no secret that politics and the media have been working hand in hand, and the sad thing is that this problem can only be improved but not completely uprooted.

Whenever I think about the correlation between press freedom and civic consciousness, I cannot help to think of the civilians' protests in Hong Kong in recent years. There are huge discrepancies between what has been reported in the conventional media and the online new media over the same incident, prompting the recipients to speculate the authenticity of a piece of information fed to them. This has in a way encouraged the recipients to listen and read more, and cross check the reporter's background as well as the perspective in handling the incident in order to put together similar reports from a wide range of sources to deduce the authenticity of a piece of news.

We can see clearly from here that indeed information digitization has provided a fertile ground for information to flourish, but unfortunately, “clarifying news sources to prevent misreporting” has been slowly overlooked in a highly competitive media environment, as people are more concerned about the speed of news propagation and click rates.

As such, it is not a novel thing for any piece of hearsay information received to be redistributed by the media in the form of “news”, putting the audiences in a dilemma, as they have to rely on their own ability to tell how reliable a piece of news is.

In the past we fought so hard to defend press freedom so that the audiences would not be denied their right to information. However, due to the lack of an effective supervisory mechanism in the digitized world, the space for press freedom has gradually evolved into a hotbed for the generation of fake news. To improve such an online ecosystem, it is imperative for the government to legislate laws to control the flow of information even though such a move will invariably invite strong resistance from the media industry as well as the audiences in the name of defending freedom of expression.

Having said that, we cannot afford to deny and ignore this increasingly evident phenomenon in which certain quarters exploit press freedom as a shield to camouflage their irresponsible act of generating fake news which will eventually hinder the audiences' free access to information in a way that they are no longer capable of making appropriate criticisms or choices over what government institutions are doing.

We should see from here that press freedom is not just about the quantity of information delivered, but the quality of information needs to be improved as well.

(Ng Wan Wei, Research School for Southeast Asian Studies, Xiamen University China.)


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