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June 25, 2017

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Taiwan's media frenzies fueled by unhealthy curiosity

Keeping a whale shark in an aquarium, speculation over the intriguing "Murder Cafe" case, and the hype over the wedding of President Ma Ying-jeou's daughter — all three have something in common: unhealthy curiosity.

Why would we want to keep a 6-meter whale shark in a fish tank that may not be larger than a luxury house? To satisfy our curiosity, as well as to inspire some awe in the wonders of nature.

Why would we want to know Lesley Ma has been married? Her capacity as the president's daughter alone is enough to arouse our curiosity. And the secrecy surrounding the wedding has also excited the blood-thirsty opposition camp, which has always been apt to find fault with the president.

Why would we want to know the stories behind the double murder of an old couple whose bodies were found near a coffee shop that they had frequented? Probably for the same reason we read a Sherlock Holmes novel or watch a CSI episode. But we are even more curious about the "Murder Cafe" because it is a real case.

Curiosity drives human civilization. Isaac Newton must have been very curious about why the apple did not fall upwards. Curiosity motivates our education, our research, our investigations, and our inventions.

But curiosity can be fatal. Adam and Eve became mortal because of the serpent's temptation, a temptation directed straight at their curiosity.

The 6-meter-long whale shark's ordeal is another example of the deadly force behind curiosity. The fish, which could grow to 12 meters, will die if it continues to stay in the small tank at the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium in Southern Taiwan, according to animal rights activists.

While we tend to accept the educational excuses for keeping animals in captivity, we need to know when to stop. Keeping some clown fish in a tank may be acceptable, but a huge shark or whale may not.

We can hardly suppress our curiosity, unlike perhaps ascetic monks who are able to suppress all their desires. But we, the ordinary people, need to develop a good sense of how we can control curiosity, preventing it from running wild. It may not be easy, and sometimes attempts to control it may backfire.

The case of the first family's wedding is an example of a failed attempt to control curiosity. The first family at the beginning tried to deny us any information about the wedding. Then, when it finally had to confirm it, it sparked a media circus. The media went all-out trying to identify the bridegroom, dig up his background, question whether he had dodged military service, and wonder whether the newlywed would be in danger living in the China-ruled Hong Kong.

In a sense, we are trying to put the couple in a fish tank so that we can examine them closely — their marriage and all its implications, including ones concerning national security.

Also in a fish tank are the suspects in the "Murder Cafe" case. A prime suspect has been detained, while three others have been freed on bail. But the press has been feeding readers daily with the progress of the investigation, stories that may have come from investigators or the reporters' own imagination and speculation.

Are readers curious about the double murder? Very likely. But these reports usually assume that the suspects are indeed the killers.

The coffee shop owner has all along maintained his innocence. He may be exonerated or convicted, but he has lamented that the case has already ruined his business and life.

Is the media circus around the first family's wedding justified? Are the allegations against the "Murder Cafe" suspects fair?

As journalists, we need to ask ourselves how we can avoid being carried away by curiosity — that of ourselves and our readers. Journalists must not create their own fish tanks.

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