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September 22, 2017

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Media detract from news with sensationalism and wordplay

Sakuhei Fujiwhara (藤原咲平) is one of most frequently mentioned names in recent cable news cycles besides that of Justin Lee, the disgraced socialite. In a paper published in 1921, the Japanese meteorologist described how two cyclonic vortices in close proximity would interact and appear to both orbit around a point between the two, adding to the unpredictability of the storms' routes. The interaction was later named the Fujiwhara Effect after him.

The Fujiwhara Effect was quoted by nearly all major print and cable media in their coverage of Typhoon Tembin on Thursday. The term came out of the mouths of many newscasters along with the warning of the storm putting off a "back thrust" (回馬槍, a mythical Chinese spear technique in which a rider turns his body back to thrust his spear at a pursuing enemy) at Taiwan. The use of terms like Fujiwhara Effect and "back thrust" probably refers to the forecast that the storm would take a U-turn and hit the island for the second time.

Cable news channels, however, either regarded the meteorological theory too commonplace or too simple to include a proper explanation of the Fujiwhara Effect in their bulletins. As a result, the term was pedantically thrown in the face of viewers while precious minutes were spent on dramatic but meaningless speculations of the typhoon's strength.

Speaking of precious minutes, some media yesterday apparently reflected on their almost hysterical fixation on the storm. A newscaster mentioned how a news story could be buried these days under the reports of Tembin and Justin Lee in a matter-of-fact manner.

Among the underreported stories over the past several days are record-high gas prices, a senior police officer arrested for alleged involvement in an illegal gambling business and the escalating East Asia territory disputes; all of which were either given only a passing mention or were not covered at all, as cable media concentrated their firepower on hyping the storm story with an endless barrage of terms like "back thrust" and "Fujiwhara Effect" spiced up with video footage from previous disasters.

The public, in the end, finds itself in the worst of two worlds, i.e. getting both too much and too little of typhoon news. Viewers are bombarded with storm coverage while being deprived of useful meteorology information. Viewers are essentially getting something very similar to a really long movie trailer of a storm.

What about the newscaster who reflected on the practice of hyping up news stories? Well, she wasn't decrying the practice per se; instead, she was introducing a cute side story in which a movie marketing campaign cleverly incorporated the theme of the storm into its advertisements.

The lack of ambition and seriousness in today's entertainmentized local cable news has profound consequences, some of which can already be seen in today's news cycle.

The positive impact of citizen journalism, which is slowly gaining strength due to the popularity of smart devices, is still far from achieving its greatest potential in Taiwan; some local citizen journalists are actually imitating the entertainment- scandal-oriented approach of local professionals.

The sensational but meaningless phrases widely used by local newscasters and reporters alike — e.g. using the term "road-turned-river" to describe an ankle-deep flood — are also quite common among local citizens.

The media's championing of grammatically awkward Chinese phrase structures, such as "兩車發生相撞的狀況" (the two cars were in the occurrence of a crash) instead of "車子相撞"(the two cars crashed), is taking its toll on the people and their command of Mandarin.

An informed population is one of the greatest assets of a democratic state. The media has a responsibility to empower an informed population but it has failed to do so.

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