Whether by Trump or media, fake claims have real cost

The China Post News Staff

With U.S. President Donald Trump accusing his predecessor Barack Obama of wiretapping his campaign last year without providing any evidence, the issue of big, unverified accusations is again being discussed. Whether Trump has concrete evidence backing up his claim or not, it is clear that the accusations have served him by diverting attention from the recent crises besetting hisadministration.

Unverified accusations also occupied local headlines recently. Viewers of local Chinese-language news media would have found it difficult to avoid the coverage of a murder of a young woman who worked as a model. The case was unabashedly sensationalized as a dramatic crime of betrayal, greed and envy based solely on preliminary findings and the unsubstantiated testimony of the main suspect.

The victim was allegedly lured to a parking garage by the boyfriend of a friend on the pretense of a photoshoot. She was then robbed, assaulted and killed by the man, police say. After the couple were arrested, the man told police that his girlfriend, who also worked as a model, had plotted the attack as payback for past grudges and out of envy over the victim’s greater modeling success. The man also described in detail how his girlfriend witnessed and assisted him in the attack.

Despite the lack of evidence supporting the main suspect’s story, the intriguing tale of a femme fatale authoring the violent end of her close friend was apparently too good to pass up for most major media outlets in Taiwan. Nearly overnight, the “close-friend murderer” became one of the most despised people in Taiwan. Then came Monday, when prosecutors released the suspect after they found no evidence placing her at the scene of crime and after her alibi was verified.

The news media quickly changed course, but instead of owning up to and apologizing for having cooked up the story using mostly unproven information, media outlets gleefully trumpeted the case’s “twists and turns” — even though it was their own sensationalization that created the twists in the first place.

What both Trump, a media-savvy businessman, and many Taiwanese news media outlets have in common is their understanding that sensational but unverified accusations often sell better than truth, and that being found wrong comes with almost no cost at all.

However, there is a cost for valuing sensationalism over truth, and it comes in the form of erosion of social standards and order. Until the public can cut their addiction for sleazy excitement and drama passing itself off as news, we will continue paying that price.