The Deceptions behind News Reporting
Sir Winston Churchill once stated that, “History is written by the victors.” After being introduced to the definition “Historiography” for the first time a few weeks ago, I immediately associated it with Churchill’s profound quote that I reminisced from my high school history class. Historiography without a doubt, incorporates a number of biases from the author(s) that write it, whether the events happen to be reported accurately or not. For example, a physical newspaper is a form of communication that links the past, present, and future through text that is written by an author that may incorporate his/her biases. As a result, the general public is rarely given the pure truth about events occurring in the past as well as the future. The idea of recognizing that most of our news reports may not be historically accurate can be shocking because most of the population tends to generally believe that everything in the news is usually factual without any degree of bias. In writing this paper, I will demonstrate that bias in historiography occurs more often than intended, whether it may be intentional or not.
In order to support my thesis, the international event reported on by different countries that I will be analyzing is the Formosa Fun Coast explosion that occurred in New Taipei, Taiwan. During the evening of June 27th 2015, the New Taipei district of Taiwan that surrounds the city Taipei (the capital of Taiwan) was hosting a “Color Play Asia” event that included partying and dancing to live music at an open air venue. Over 1,000 partygoers (including manyfrom different countries) attended the event in order to take part in the various festivities being hosted. To support the “Color Play Asia” theme of the event, large air cannons and leaf blowers helped spread large amounts of colored powder that was spread within the attendees throughout the day.
Made from finely ground corn starch and different hues of food coloring, the colored powder was assumed to be harmless and safe to use, but also loosely labeled as flammable under certain conditions by the manufacturer. Reportedly around 8:30 P.M. (BBC Asia, June 28, 2015), the huge clouds of colored powder lingering in the air had ignited unexpectedly due to an uncertain source. Following the ignition of the powder were large explosions that scorched the dance floor while setting anything that the powder came in contact to on fire. Due to the humidity and sweat, partygoers were completely covered with the colored powder when it ignited and as a result, nearly 500 individuals suffered severe burns to large portions of their bodies.
The even more unfortunate attendees that inhaled large amounts of the colored powder also suffered respiratory issues due to lung and throat damage. In the end, over half of the injured were taken into intensive care units located in the northern Taiwan region instead of regular hospital wards due to the severity of the burns. Shortly after the inferno, the news quickly spread amongst neighboring countries as “the worst incidence of mass injury in the history of New Taipei city.” (China Daily, June 29, 2015). Among the affected were American, British, and Asian nationals and as a result, different countries released their own breaking news reports to the public in articles where it is clearly evident that there is bias in order to bend the facts to favor their own respective audiences.
For my first source, I will be analyzing a news article originating in Taiwan, which is the country where the explosion took place. One of the most important quotes I read in this article was that, according to the Central News Agency in Taiwan, “Up to (as many as) 4,000 tickets were sold for the event, not including early bird packages” (Taiwan News Online, June 29, 2015). Surprisingly, Taiwan’s article is the only country out of the four that even mentions anything about the total number of attendees at the event. On the other hand, one detail that every news report about this event includes is the total number of injured, an estimation of around 500 individuals (Taiwan News Online, June 29, 2015). When I personally read this article, I ended up thinking to myself that “Oh, 500 out of the 4,000+ attendees suffering injuries doesn’t seem nearly as bad as I expected when I was reading the other news articles.”
The inclusion of a rough estimate for the fraction of number of injured attendees to the total number of attendees does, in my opinion, downsize the severity of the event after reading the other articles. Neither the BBC/Reuters, CNN, nor the China Daily News include any information about the total number of attendees at the Color Play Asia event. Appropriately, the overall shock value of the event is more intense in the articles that don’t mention the total number of participants. The second big factor that I noticed about the Taiwanese article is that it doesn’t include any information about Li Pei-yun (CNN, June 29,2015), a 20-year-old female that unfortunately suffered third-degree burns to over 90% of her body who also died on the same day but before this article was published. Li Pei-yun was the first death reported from the explosions at the water park, and there is no doubt that the article would have had a much more negative tone to it with the inclusion of the death.
I’ll admit that the author Jay Chen of Taiwan News does a really good job at establishing an accurate representation of the damage that was dealt overall. Looking at the bigger picture, there really shouldn’t be any surprise as to why Taiwan’s version of the event establishes a much less severe than the news reports from other countries. The Taiwanese media is (understandably) trying to soften the gravity of the Color Play Asia disaster in order to make it seem like the number of injuries weren’t as bad to the future generations that decide to research the details of such a catastrophe. Overall, the article originating in Taiwan is obviously biased towards helping the country preserve as much as its own respectability as possible by projecting the “best” possible situation to the reader.
For my second example, I am considering an U.S. article straight from CNN that reports on the crisis overseas from where it actually occurred. What I first noticed from CNN’s article that differed from the rest was that it included a lot of quoted dialogue (CNN, June 29, 2015), from either event officials, relatives of the injured participants, or witnesses. One of the quotes that impacted me the most was, “‘All of her skin was gone. Her hands were shaking… and she kept calling for me,’ her mother said.” It surprised me how the addition of dialogue throughout the news report helped me achieve a much more personal relationship with the burn victims.
Unlike Taiwan News, China Daily News, and the BBC/Reuters, CNN does a great job of playing with human emotions. The bias with CNN’s report is more toward a negative perspective of the situation, since most of the dialogue provided supports the gruesomeness of the crisis. Another difference I noticed with CNN’s report was that the other half of their content (other than the dialogue) were details and background on what actions the government and event officials were taking. Unlike the news articles from other countries, CNN reveals that the manufacturer of the colored powder distributed throughout Color Play Asia events is clearly labeled as “flammable and shouldn’t be used in closed spaces or under high temperatures.” (CNN, June 29, 2015). These details are important because it shows that the event coordinators should have known that the powder was a fire hazard especially in the conditions that the event took place. The everyday reader of this article would most likely be biased towards the idea that the event staff was to blame for the explosions, because no warning was publicly announced that the colored powder was highly flammable.
The third source that I will be analyzing originates from a country that historically is not on the best of terms with Taiwan, which leads to myself already expecting some form of bias that will try to create the worst possible scenario of the disaster. Long story short, Taiwan fled China in order to establish a democratic government in 1949, and over half a century later, China still does not recognize Taiwan as an independent country and government. As a result, the Chinese news article is reasonably written to bring out details that affect the Chinese population. For example, China Daily is the only one of the four countries that mentions, “Among the injured are two students from the Chinese mainland (Chen Lingdan and Zhuang Chujun), five from Hong Kong,” (China Daily, June 29, 2015). Although there were multiple participants from other different countries including Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Africa, China Daily is the only news source that mentions the countries affected by the disaster.
Not to mention in their case, the author specifically focuses on the interviews from Chinese students that were injured for the majority of the news article. It is evident that the author is biased towards favoring the Chinese audience in telescoping the number of countries influenced to mainly China. The author also notes that both students from the Chinese mainland were studying in Taiwan’s Chia Tung University (China Daily, June 29, 2015), when both students decided to party and relax after finishing the term’s courses. The previous articles focus on the bigger picture of the tragedy, while China Daily successfully breaches into the emotions of China by emphasizing the background and aftermath of Chen Lingdan and Zhuang Chujin, the two Chinese students severely injured in the crisis.
Lastly, I will evaluate the British point of view on the catastrophe by examining articles from two of the most reputable news agencies in the United Kingdom, Reuters and the BBC. The first major difference I noticed with both U.K. news reports was the ratio of written content to pictures. In all of the previous articles, they had on average one or two pictures or a video that highlights the major facts and injuries from the explosions. On the other hand, BBC News and Reuters both have their respective video and many photos to complement the articles. Pictures of burn victims covered with wet towels, people evacuated to hospitals on stretchers, and video of screaming while the explosions started (BBC and Reuters, June 28, 2015) all paint vivid scenes of what exactly took place.
Appropriately, I consider the British news agencies as particularly biased towards capturing the reader into primarily focusing on the provided images rather than reading the general information in the blocks of text. That way, instead of informing the readers about the behaviors and actions taken to aid the injured like CNN, Taiwan News, and China Daily do, Reuters and the BBC primarily spotlight the images that bring out the worst possible rundown of the incident. The British articles also include dialogue, “ ‘Her whole life is ruined,’ sobbed the father of Chu Li, an 18-year-old girl with burns on 80 percent of her body” (Reuters, June 28, 2015), that intensifies the awfulness of the disaster. Unlike the other countries that shed light on the ban of colored powder in Taiwan and closure of the Formosa water park, news agencies from the United Kingdom are similar to China Daily News in successfully highlighting the worst case scenarios of the Formosa Fun Coast explosion.
To conclude, what I have experienced through the procedure of breaking down articles while comparing and contrasting them is that news is more often than not, biased, whether it may be positively or negatively supporting the situation at hand. Each author has his or her process of publishing a news article, and it’s up to them in deciding what information to include (or not include) in order to create a bias that may or may not be intentional. In each of the news articles analyzed in my essay, it was noticeable that the authors included their own biases to either alleviate or aggravate the position that the reader considers about the event. Personally, I have progressed to understand the reason why some news agencies emphasize key points of an event while other agencies barely touch on the specifics of the circumstances.
In the case of the Formosa Fun Coast explosion, the news agencies that I analyzed were similar in one of two ways. China’s news agency China Daily News and the United Kingdom’s BBC/Reuters were similar in emphasizing specific cases of injured attendees while providing photos for visual aid. China’s China Daily News goes one step further by dedicating the article to the two Chinese students that were unfortunately suffered burn injuries in order to support the Chinese audience. On the other hand, Taiwan’s Taiwan News Online and CNN from the United States both are similar in the fact that both agencies’ authors are primarily focused on providing information that attempts to relieve the situation as much as possible. As far as history goes, this also may not be much of a surprise, since the U.S. and Taiwan have enjoyed a close relationship for as long as I can remember. As much as these four newspapers differ in terms of taking separate opinions, I am able to safely conclude that all the reported articles I analyzed contain some type of bias that will definitely distort the history recorded for the Formosa Fun Coast explosion.
BBC, Asia. “Taiwan Formosa Water Park explosion injures hundreds.” BBC. British
Broadcasting Corporation, 28 June 2015. Web. 15 July 2015. Chao-Yu, Wang, and Bear Lee. “Water Park Fire Injuries Revised Down to 494.”
Taiwan News Online. Taiwan News Central News Agency, 29 June 2015. Web. 15 July
2015. Chen, Jay. “Heavy Dust, Heat Source May Have Caused Explosion: Official.” Taiwan News
Online. Taiwan News Central News Agency, 29 June 2015. 15 July 2015. Mullen, Jethro, Kathy Novak, and K.J. Kwon. “Horrific Aftermath of Fiery Blast at Taiwan
Water Park.” CNN. Cable News Network, 29 June 2015. Web. 15 July 2015. Staff, Xinhua News Agency (China). “Taiwan Investigates Blaze; Injuries Revised Down to
498.” China Daily. China Daily Group, 29 June 2015. Web. 15 July 2015. Wu, J.R., and Pichi Chuang. “Taiwan Probes Water Park Fire as Tally of Injured put at 498.”
Reuters. Reuters, 28 June 2015. Web. 15 July 2015.