Hey Taiwan! Is This Um… Stuff… Really News?

learn chinese with news, watching the news to learn chinese

Watching a nation’s newscasts provides insight into a culture’s psychology, at least the narrow slice of what captures people’s attention and brings in ratings for news stations. In Taiwan, which is a fairly small island, pleasantly peaceful and prosperous, the news reveals the country’s interests and concerns.

Major news stories garner airtime, like the MRT murders last year, the 黑心 recycled oil scandal, the Sunflower movement protests, the Kaohsiung gas explosions, local election coverage, the TransAsia plane crashes, etc. These stories would likely make news headlines just about anywhere.

But what I find curious and amusing is all the other frivolities considered worthy of primetime news.

A typical Taiwanese news broadcast consists of stories about new and trendy eateries. Restaurants and edibles feature prominently in Taiwanese culture. Recently there was a broadcast about a bakery that makes bread resembling watermelon. If it’s food and it’s cute, it’s sure to make the news.

And speaking of cute… Anything cute it is probably a trend worth reporting. Like the now famous mailboxes that were struck during a typhoon and left tilted in a way that was considered adorable by Taiwanese standards, drawing huge crowds just to pose for photo ops with the pair.

And speaking of queues… Taiwanese people are passionate about waiting in line for the latest and greatest food and other attractions. (To witness this, just go to Costco on a Saturday, lines of people snake around the store for a sample of food bits.) Taiwanese news reports on hotspots where queues are forming, and even on the phenomena of lining up and waiting itself.

A Taiwanese news broadcast wouldn’t be complete without dash cam footage of car wrecks and scooter crashes, which are plentiful.

It’s always a lucky day for news journalists when they can sniff out a story, pretty much any story, featuring a westerner in Taiwan. Whether causing a ruckus, or just reacting to local culture, or speaking Chinese, 外國人 are a sure to create a buzz.

And the ultimate Taiwanese news sensation features a combination of the above mentioned elements, as in this clip below. A western guy speaking Chinese, trending food, long lines… A Taiwanese reporter’s dream!

Finally, the news story that seems the most comical of all… Now and again something happens in Taiwan that gets picked up and reported by foreign news channels. When Taiwan is covered on the news in other countries, the foreign news coverage is news in Taiwan. “Hey look! We made CNN everybody!”

What makes this all so amusing to me is the fact that it is news at all. American news, while not being qualitatively better by any stretch, is just different. Food, lines, foreigners, car crashes and cute things are the stuff of Youtube videos or morning shows, but hardly feature stories on the news.

Taiwanese news seems more gossipy and lighthearted than its fear mongering American counterpart. The Taiwanese news aptly reflects what it’s like to live in an ordinarily pacific society, where people don’t have to bear the heavy burden of wars, police brutality, gang violence, racial discrimination, sexual violence and abuse, drug wars, gun violence, human trafficking, etc. being broadcast daily into their living rooms.

Sometimes I scoff when I see trivial Taiwanese news stories, and I’ve often argued, “But that’s not news!” At the same time, Taiwanese news reminds me of all there is to be grateful for. I appreciate being able to live in a peaceful country, where it’s generally safe to be any race, gender, or age. A country where guns are illegal and violence is the exception, not the rule.

What type of news stories do you consider odd or amusing? Let me know how Taiwanese news compares to news you’ve seen in other countries.

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5 Comments

  1. Hi! I am a 21-year-old Taiwanese. I totally agreed with what you said in the article.
    Journalism should’ve been a professional career; yet some Taiwanese journalists are not even able to be called “qualified”. (But sometimes, I still feel appreciated for what they did. For example, during the typhoon, they need to risk just for a “vivid” report.)

    In order to enhance my language level, I watch “foreign” news in English and in French. Compared to Taiwan, a plenty amount of news are from YouTube. It’s really rare to see a journalist OUTSIDE of this island for a report.
    Maybe you are reasonable : Taiwan is a peaceful place. However, I think it cannot be an excuse for not having “good-qualified “(or even “normal” one) news.
    I can’t think of a good solution for solving this problem. But at least it’s a good sign that people start to notice this situation.

  2. A few years ago, while I was doing my bachelor, I also noticed this difference in news between the US and the UK (CNN and BBC). My main concern about this is that, compare with other countries, Taiwan rarely shows international news, such as the recent Europe migrant crisis, the University shootings in America, and… no idea… maybe some news on UNICEF, PETA or… this is when I go to BBC to see what’s on (feeling ignorant right now).

    Though there aren’t many International news, it’s quite informing and interesting to see those news about what’s delicious and what’s trending.

  3. Sadly it is. I am from Taiwan and I am deeply sorrowful about how our news has become like this. And thank you for writing this essay in a lighter tone 🙂 I am not an expert in social science or media so I don’t know the real reasons, but from my personal observation, one of the keys might lie in the fact that we are not only geographically but practically an isolated island, and this situation makes people feel distant from most of the international events.

    Here are three brief examples to give you some ideas. (1) When it’s about an important trade agreement among other countries (like last week’s The Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP), we are excluded; and reporting this kind of news would only make people sad (so they would want to switch to other channels). (2) Or when talking about a humanity project (like the current refugee crisis), this kind of news would also remind people how we were abandoned by the world during our miserable times (ex. SARS in 2003; not being able to receive any support from WHO while we were just pleading for first-hand information and struggling hard with the deadly disease alone). (3) Last but not least, regarding the Expo Milano which has been ongoing for a while, we have no news about it at all. And as you can probably imagine, it’s again because we are not allowed to attend. And reporting this event would only make people realize our own unpleasant situation. These kinds of news which would possibly arouse antipathy and self-pity are not welcome among common audiences here, so instead, the news channels turn out to make “lighter” programs on “simple” things which could interest people while not involve in serious issues.

    This is my personal view, but I hope it can give you some glimpse about our situation. Now we have many independent forces trying to change this terrible phenomenon of media, and if you are interested in our media issues, here are few websites I would suggest you to have a look:

    1. “World” http://world.yam.com/info.php
    2. “The News Lense” http://www.thenewslens.com/
    3. “Insight” http://www.insight-post.tw/
    4. “Global Voice (Taiwan)” https://zht.globalvoices.org/

    Many people are trying to make a difference, and if you have some helpful suggestions please share with us 🙂 and thanks for paying attention on this issue.

  4. It reminds me of the time when TV program is on the air 4 hours a day: in the morning, at noon, and in the evening; and there were just 3 channels. There is not much you can report in such a small, peaceful, and uniform country. We used to have a considerable proportion of International news, but the sensual, funny, or less critical stuff seems to be cheaper and easier to catch the eyeballs. What else can you do if you have to broadcast 24 hours a day meanwhile competing with other 10 news channel on this tiny place ? Also, people are not used to participating important public affairs since Taiwan was still a authoritarian nation until 1989. Political issues does not seem to be ‘our’ problems, they are the problems for ‘up there’. Then there came the Internet boom. The importance of TV is replaced by the Internet, and the media companies has no interests moving online, and cater to more politics-minded young generation. It is more profitable to make some light-hearted news to feed the older generation. My families and I haven’t watched TV for years, and I did not miss anything important because these news channels are always coping stuff I have seen somewhere else. Still, it is a huge problem we have to solve.

  5. I like your conclusion of the situation of the media in Taiwan. We live in a safe country and we don’t have to worry about what American people should worry. We barely see guns or gangster on the street. That’s why we don’t have a lot of bloody news in Taiwan. Every time I see some news from the foreign media, it usually reports some serious situation like the war in Ukraine, the crisis in Syria, the refugee crisis in Europe…etc. Those things remind me I belong to a peaceful country.
    By the way, I’ve heard too my negative comments from Taiwanese about the Taiwanese media. They always complain about the media’s unprofessional works. I don’t really agree with that. The media company does not decide the quality of the news. Why? Because they only care about the profit. The one who can decide the existence of the new are Taiwanese people. They are the media’s customer. That’s how the media keep the business work. The existence of the amusing news or so called “unprofessional” news just points to the fact that most of Taiwanese people love to watch it. Taiwanese people are high educated, so do those journalists in the media industry. I find this very ironic that every time those Taiwanese people mocking at the journalists, actually they are mocking at the taste of Taiwanese people. They are mocking at their friends or their family.
    In my opinion, the way to change the current culture of Taiwan media is to change Taiwanese people first. Taiwanese people have to start caring about the world outside, not just the things in Taiwan. I understand a lot of countries don’t give a shit about us, but that is not a reason to stop us exploring and caring about the world. When we find out there are more interesting things outside of Taiwan, we eventually will find those gossip news boring and we won’t read it anymore. When Taiwanese people choose watching more interesting news rather than the gossip news, the media will change their strategies and report something else. That’s another funny thing that I realized why you know Taiwanese news more than me. I don’t really watch it anymore.

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