When monitoring the events in Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, we noticed there was a clear mainstream media brownout on the reporting of the grassroots democratic movement. This is important because the mainstream media has failed to educate the American public on the important issue of Taiwan, and what this means to U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region. We have been failed by the mainstream media to be able to make the decisions necessary to participate in a democracy.
When students take journalism classes, they are taught the basic criteria for determining whether or not a story is “newsworthy”. Some lists vary, but essentially, it boils down to the following:
- Conflict and Controversy
- Human Interest
How do these factors relate to the state of reporting in the United States? For one, it shapes how we perceive the world, and our place in it. Secondly, understanding how our journalism works allows for understanding of how we function in a democracy. We, the people, make decisions through our votes on the change in policies we wish to see. If we’re not seeing the full picture of the state of our world, what power do we have to make decisions on how we want to live, or better our society?
When monitoring the events in Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, we noticed there was a clear mainstream media brownout on the reporting of the grassroots democratic movement. This is important because the mainstream media has failed to educate the American public on the important issue of Taiwan, and what this means to U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region. We have been failed by the mainstream media to be able to make the decisions necessary to participate in a democracy. We decided to unearth the data behind this brownout, and then proceed to explain its significance.
We used the search tools available on the top 12 U.S. news sites to find articles relating to the protests in Taiwan. Between the top 12, approximately 89 distinct articles were posted. Some were in print editions, others were digital only. We’ve also included editorial cartoons, videos, and photo galleries. As seen in the chart "Total Articles by Publisher", the distribution of those 89 articles is not equal.
Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, and the NY Times led in overall volume coverage. The question is: what does this mean in terms of penetration? Was the average American exposed to news on Taiwan?
The "Site Visitors (By Publisher)" chart shows the Average Daily Visitor and Unique Visitors across several news sites. CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX lead here. Bloomberg, our leading volume source of Taiwan news, ranks 12/20 for Unique Visitors, and 7/20 for Average Daily Visitors.
The type of content varied the most across our top sources as well. The Washington Post had a high variety for low coverage.
We could not find a well-tested formula for determining estimated penetration. Another added difficulty is that it was impossible to determine where some articles appeared (above, below the fold), and many did not have view counts. However, below are some layered graphs to visually assess the imbalance of coverage and reach of the publisher:
What is clear by these graphs is that many of the top news organizations in this country failed to provide updated coverage of the Sunflower Movement.
Looking at when coverage occurred, we can see that there was a significant push in coverage after President Ma Ying-Jeou called for an international press conference on March 23rd. Another notable bump comes on April 6th when the students announce the evacuation of the LY for April 10th. What is missing is the coverage of the March 30th rally on Ketagalan Blvd, where it’s estimated that 500,000 people crowded the street in solidarity with the Sunflower Movement.
Why Taiwan Is Newsworthy
It’s a slippery slope to speculate on why this issue was neglected by the U.S. mainstream media, but there is a strong argument to be made for why this issue should have been covered. Following the tenets of newsworthiness, here are the reasons:
TIMELINESS: While the mainstream media was consumed by stale theories about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, students were storming the Legislative Yuan, beaten by police, and holding massive rallies. Day after day, more videos and footage were released, of police brutality, of increased numbers at the protest sites, and more press releases from the students, yet mainstream coverage remained static.
PROXIMITY: Proximity is often mistaken for physical distance, but it is also applied culturally. Cultural proximity is why European news is often reported in the United States, over news from Africa, South America, and Asia. Is this still acceptable in a society that is increasingly culturally diverse? Today, Asian Americans make up about 5% of the population, the third largest minority group after Hispanic/Latinos and African Americans. Coverage on the political crisis in Thailand has also been similarly weak, indicating that Taiwan is not alone in Western ambivalence towards Asian issues.
CONFLICT AND CONTROVERSY: The scale of the protests was unprecedented in Taiwanese history - it was the first time the Legislative building had been taken over by activists. Sadly, the government crackdown on the demonstration was not the first time the voice of the people has been suppressed. It didn’t take long for violent images to emerge from the scenes: water cannons, bloodied faces, and swinging batons became a source for controversy during the occupation. Perhaps the biggest controversy was the reason for the occupation in the first place - the undemocratic, closed-door dealings, of the ruling party to push through a trade deal!
HUMAN INTEREST: This factor was perhaps the biggest gap in mainstream reporting. The LA Times, for instance, had a great opportunity to report on local efforts in Los Angeles where protesters carried out a movement next to a busy intersection at The Federal Building on Wilshire, yet not a single American news reporter showed up. The protest was carried out mostly by Taiwanese students, which is another relationship that continues to flourish - Taiwan is the sixth largest source of international students in the United States - proportionally they exceed China or India. Lastly, U.S.-Taiwan relations affect the 215,000+ Taiwanese Americans living in the U.S., many whom still have family in Taiwan, or even immigrated to the U.S. as a result of political tensions, yet this is often overlooked.
RELEVANCE: The relevance of U.S.-Taiwan relations can not be overstated. Taiwan can be one of our greatest allies in the Asian Pacific region - it’s already a leader in U.S. international trade (ranking as our 12th largest trading partner), and is a top-10 destination for U.S. agricultural and food exports. The United States and Taiwan are already close partners on the international stage, and continue to cooperate on multiple issues, ranging from trade (billions of dollars in investment from both sides) to security (Taiwan is an important ally in promoting stability across the Taiwan Strait, and the U.S. has reiterated its support to peace in the region with the sales of updated military equipment). Without understanding any of the current issues in Taiwan, how are we expected to evaluate our relationship with the country at all?
The fact is, there are many reasons why Taiwan is an important issue for the United States. These newsworthy characteristics can be overlapped, connected, and cross-referenced across each other in numerous ways. What it comes down to is that the United States and Taiwan share more core values than the media would lead you to think. Two of these are the values that our country was founded on, and ones that we continue to preach every election year: Freedom and Democracy. There is perhaps nothing more relevant to the United States than to showcase the story of a young former colony, rising up against undemocratic principles imposed by the government, battling crackdowns on human rights and personal freedoms, and uniting to build a governing body that is for the people, and by the people. Sound familiar?