2010 / 1月
Chen Hsin-yi /tr. by Scott Williams
The media has been playing an ever more active role in promoting charitable aid in recent years, both in ordinary times and after disasters. What are the plusses and minuses of the media's transformation from neutral platform to active participant? What ethical lines does it need to avoid crossing?
Each of Taiwan's major television stations aired a fundraising program within a week of Typhoon Morakot striking the island. In addition to soothing musical performances, the programs featured frequent heart-wrenching updates from the disaster area. Generous donations by celebrities and corporations created an emotional atmosphere that generated still more donations, enabling these programs to raise hundreds of millions of NT dollars in just a few hours.
Chou Wen-chen, secretary general of the United Way of Taiwan, says that experience has shown that donation fever peaks in the few days after a disaster. By working with trusted charitable organizations, the media can use its platform to benefit everyone.
However, while many media outlets chose to work with social welfare groups or donate the funds they raised to the government, others chose to go it alone, establishing their own foundations to solicit, collect, and distribute donations and manage subsequent projects. Given that their actions fall into a gray area unaddressed by the law, the public can't help but be concerned that these media-established foundations are putting public resources to private uses. Social-welfare workers have slightly different concerns: Are these media-established foundations operating in a transparent manner? And do they have sufficient expertise to actually help people?
The TVBS Caring for Taiwan Culture and Education Foundation, established by television station TVBS, raised NT$590 million after Typhoon Morakot. One month after the storm, it announced on its website its plans for spending the money, which included providing disaster aid and educational assistance to students affected by the disaster, and working with the government on school reconstruction. It also stated that it was awaiting more detailed information from elementary and middle schools and from the Child Welfare Bureau before determining the number and amount of some of the subsidies, and added that it would "integrate its efforts with those of other social welfare groups to avoid providing redundant subsidies."
The TVBS foundation has rejected media requests for interviews on the grounds that it is too busy. May Chen, a senior executive in the TVBS news division, emphasizes that the foundation and the TV station are independent entities, and that the TV station does not interfere with the foundation's operations. She says further that the foundation raises funds in accordance with the law and under the oversight of the competent authorities, so the public needn't worry that TVBS will appropriate foundation funds for its own purposes.
The Liberty Times, which backs the Lin Rung San Foundation of Culture and Social Welfare, is another major media player that fundraises on its own foundation's behalf. Though the foundation has already raised in excess of NT$130 million, it has yet to publicize its plans or expenditures.
Tsai Su-fen, editor-in-chief of The Liberty Times literary supplement and executive director of the paper's foundation, explains that the policy of the newspaper and the foundation has always been "people oriented" and has sought primarily to provide long-term assistance to orphaned children and needy seniors. However, she says that the government's lists of disaster victims are unreliable and that the paper has spent months investigating to ensure that money goes to those who are truly needy. Once they have the information in hand, it will take still more time to evaluate it and establish standards for the distribution of funds. The paper does not plan to publicize its efforts until everything is in place.Legal loopholes, blurred roles?
NPO workers remain dubious of the media's statements about itself. They note first that current regulations on fundraising remain lax in their demands for financial transparency. Groups that engage in fundraising need only provide a list of their expenditures when they complete a project. In other words, if work on a project drags on for years without wrapping up, the competent authorities are likely to remain hands-off for the duration, making it difficult for the public to get a clear picture of what the foundation's really doing. Second, these media foundations, which routinely raise hundreds of millions in donations, fall under the jurisdiction of the local authorities of the place in which they are registered, i.e. the Taipei City Bureau of Social Affairs or the Taipei County Social Affairs Bureau. These bureaus have so little manpower and knowledge of audits that "they don't dare and are in fact incapable of overseeing these foundations," says Chang Hung-lin, secretary general of the Taiwan NPO Self-Regulation Alliance.
Setting aside the above concerns about accountability and professionalism, communications scholars have raised yet another issue. Hu Yuan-hui is a former CEO of Taiwan's Public Television Service and a former president and board member at TTV who now teaches in the Department of Communications at National Chung Cheng University. He says that the media's principal roles should be as "a platform for exchange and discussion of all kinds of information and opinions" and as a facilitator and overseer of the public sphere. Hu wonders how media outlets involved in reconstruction and the allocation of charitable donations avoid blurring the lines between supervisor and supervised. In his view, the failure to keep these two roles distinct constitutes a violation of professional ethics.
Hu further notes that the media's disaster fundraising does nothing but consolidate the collective strength of the public. But when the media then claims as its own the right to distribute these funds, it uses these collective resources to burnish its own image. "In fact, media corporations gain material benefits from their participation in charity work, not just intangible benefits to their image," says Hu. He notes, for example, that fundraising for disaster relief enables media corporations to avoid having to pay appearance fees to performers and celebrities, gives their stations higher ratings that allow them to run more advertising, and enables them to negotiate sponsorship for follow-up programs that report on disaster-related issues in more depth.
But the media's motivation for doing charity work isn't the issue. The real question is whether it can maintain a strict separation between its media operations and its charitable foundations.
With regard to Typhoon Morakot, Hu says: "The media can make the greatest contribution by being a good information portal and monitor on the long road to reconstruction. If its fundraising activities make it reluctant to act as a neutral observer, cause it to monopolize work, or prompt it to engage in fraud, it will lose the public's trust. In the long term, that loss would outweigh any more immediate gains."
The one who made a mess in the first place should be the one to clean it up. In this media-dominated, controversy-saturated era, why shouldn't we begin the effort to rebuild the media's public value and reestablish its idealism with an examination of its fundraising activities?