Fair Elections and Responsible Journalism

As a source of information, analysis and comment on current events, the news media perform several functions in modern societies. The basic goal of most professional journalists, however, is to serve society by informing the public, scrutinising the way power is exercised, stimulating democratic debate, and thereby advancing the process of political, economic, social and cultural development.

A democratic election must be not only free and fair but also seen to be free and fair. The media have a key role to play in this: providing information and analysis, functioning as watchdogs and being a conduit for voters’ voices.

An election is more than just a major, intense, long-running news story. Elections are about political parties competing for popular support in order to gain power and the right to govern. Most elections involve crucial decisions about the future of the nation (or state/province, city/town, village/rural habitations) concerned and their outcome depends to a great extent on how the media report on them.

The media play three critical roles in an election:

  1. First, they provide information about the election to citizens. Since people’s awareness about the election depends to a large extent on media content, journalists must report factually and fairly on the platforms and campaigns of all the participating political parties and/or candidates so that the electorate can differentiate between them and make informed decisions. The media must also provide interpretation and analysis of events and issues, often by creating space for the diverse opinions of a range of columnists and commentators. Another important task involves passing on information from the election commission to educate citizens on the basic facts and process of elections: the rights and responsibilities of voters, how to register themselves as voters, where to vote, how to ensure the secrecy of their vote, who the candidates standing for election from their constituency are, etc. In addition the media can serve as a link between political parties and voters by carrying political advertisements, organising debates between candidates, and so on.
  2. Secondly the media function as watchdogs on behalf of the public, keeping close tabs on the election campaign and the voting process. It is the media’s job to report on any violations of the rights of candidates or voters (including the right to free speech), any corruption in election and voting procedures, any misdemeanour by political parties, and/or any sins of omission or commission by the election management authorities.
  3. And, thirdly, the media need to serve as the voice of the voters. Elections are not just for politicians; they are, notably, an opportunity for ordinary people to speak up, to identify the issues they think need highlighting and why. Journalists must go out into the community to seek and provide a forum for the voices of ordinary voters who have something to say, especially those who hesitate to voice their opinions on public matters in the public sphere or have been ignored or even prevented from doing soin the past.

As every journalist knows, at the most fundamental level, a good story contains the answers to the questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how? In election reporting, these questions help define the basic content of a news story. Who is the candidate for which party where? What are the party’s ideological base, history and unique selling point (if any)? What are the candidate’s antecedents and credentials? What promises is the candidate making? How does the candidate intend to keep the promises? When does the candidate expect to honour his or her promises? Who is paying for the candidate’s campaign? How could that affect the candidate’s decisions if he/she is elected? What is the candidate’s track record as an elected representative or in his/her other field of work (if any)?

Ethical practice

Coverage of elections places the same type of responsibility on professional journalists as coverage of any other subject. It goes without saying that they must respect professional ethics. At the most basic level they must stay clear of blatant violations of ethics such as distortion of facts, over-emphasis on certain aspects of a story, headlines that misrepresent the content of the story and, of course, outright fabrication of stories, quotes, people and events.

At another level they must use only honest, legal methods to obtain information and opinion. They must avoid reporting anything without checking the facts – even if the information has been reported elsewhere. While unsubstantiated allegations and offensive speeches are not uncommon during election campaigns, journalists must not knowingly repeat them without enabling the other side to comment or respond. Only responsible journalism can make it possible for well-informed voters to freely make up their own minds.

Fairness and balance are important aspects of journalistic responsibility. Fair and balanced election coverage means that individual stories, as well as the pattern of stories over a period of time, contain points of view from different parties and/or candidates. It is not always possible to make every story equally balanced but a fair or representative balance between the competing parties and candidates can be achieved in the multiple stories likely to be published or aired during the election period.

Professional journalists are not supposed to favour any candidate. Their task is to ask questions on behalf of the people, compare answers, present and explain various points of view, and add background information, so that the public is aware of the context and has access to different opinions. By doing this they would be giving voters an opportunity to figure out whose views and stands make most sense to them. Balance is more than just a courtesy; it is a necessity for credible journalism in the public interest.

Accuracy is another important aspect of journalistic responsibility. Stories must be accurate not only at the level of getting the names of people and places right and ensuring that descriptions and quotes are correct, but also in terms of placing information in context and giving important events and issues due emphasis without resorting to exaggeration. Inaccurate descriptions of people, places and events amount to misinformation. People’s trust in the media is bound to be eroded if they perceive that they cannot depend on the accuracy of even simple, straightforward reports.

One way to ensure both accuracy and responsibility is proper attribution, clarifying the sources of the information and opinions included in a report. It is important for readers, listeners and viewers to know who is answerable for a specific piece of information or a certain opinion.

Anonymous sources are uncommon exceptions to this rule. Journalists have an obligation to protect sources who offer valuable information but have legitimate reasons for not wishing their identity to be revealed. If a source tells a journalist something significant in confidence, the journalist does have a responsibility to safeguard the privacy of that person. It is necessary to protect the identity of such sources in order to build the trust required if the media are to access sensitive information that cannot be obtained in any other way. However, it must be noted that the need to protect sources should not be misused to escape responsibility for stories based on rumours and allegations that reflect little regard for accuracy and credibility, fairness and balance.

As in all news reporting, journalists are not supposed to put their own opinions into election reporting. The public looks to election reportage for information, not individual reporters’ personal likes and dislikes vis a vis candidates or their ideas. Even opinions expressed in editorial and op-ed page articles – and their equivalents in the broadcast media – need to be backed up by fact-based analysis if they are to be convincing.

The professional norm that journalists must not accept any gifts or other kinds of favours from political parties or candidates is a vital part of the responsibility and credibility imperative. It is especially important during election coverage, when parties and candidates may be inclined to be particularly generous in the hope of favourable media exposure.

Ideally journalists should not even accept transportation from parties or candidates. It may be better for them to travel together in a private vehicle and share the cost than to be beholden to or seen to be associated with any party or candidate. Media outlets can consider the option of sharing the travel and accommodation costs of their respective correspondents without compromising individual reporters’ freedom and ability to independently report the story.

Whether reporting for print or electronic media, professional journalists need to realise that they are really communicating to the individual citizen. To ensure that their reports are clear and comprehensible to the average member of the public, it may be helpful for journalists to think of someone they know who is an “ordinary” reader, listener or viewer and mentally write for or speak to that one person. This is particularly important during elections when people look to the media for help in arriving at a decision on who to vote for.

Stories need vetting and verification before they are made public. Journalists often cite the pressure of deadlines as an excuse for not being able to check facts and ensure that the story makes sense. However, vetting does not necessarily take a lot of time and, in any case, it is better to be sure than sorry. A quick way to check on clarity is to request a colleague to read or listen to the story as a member of the public and raise questions or doubts, which can then be used to improve the story.

Reporters are not the only journalists who need to be conscious of the importance of responsible journalism. Editors play an important role in shaping media content and should strive to ensure accuracy, fairness and balance in coverage. Sub-editors, copy-editors and other in-house editorial staff at different levels in a media establishment are as crucial to professional quality and integrity as correspondents. They have a vital role to play in ensuring that stories are accurate, fair and balanced, make sense and are well presented.

Parties and candidates

Most parties choose to make a particular leader or leaders the centre of attention on the assumption that voters who like the projected leader will vote for the party’s other candidates. Accordingly election campaigns largely comprise speeches, rallies and press conferences featuring the party leader(s). But the media’s job is not to just repeat all the words spoken by political leaders. For example, a news story based on a particular speech should include information about where it was made, how many people were present, what the reactions of people on the street were, and what political opponents had to say about the main points in it. Voters need to know all this if they are to evaluate the speech and the speaker in an informed manner.

Political speeches are generally intended to arouse the loyalty of traditional supporters and attract new supporters by promising to solve their problems and make life better for them. They are often designed to make other parties look weak or corrupt or in other ways unattractive to voters. Sometimes such speeches contain violent language and include attacks on other politicians which can inflame passions. While journalists cannot censor such remarks, they must ensure that they are reported accurately and responsibly. News containing such provocative material must be balanced as far as possible by including quick reactions from the other side (i.e., those under attack) as well as from ordinary voters, who may have their own opinions on such political tactics.

The words journalists use while reporting can influence whether the news helps to build understanding or reinforces misperceptions, suspicions and fear. Language, which is the strongest tool available to journalists, has to be used with care to avoid doing harm. This is particularly true during elections, when some candidates may attempt to gain extra attention by making emotionally charged statements.

Political candidates obviously try to use the media to convey their own messages to the people. So journalists must not only gather facts but also remain vigilant about possible attempts to manipulate them. For example, politicians often use words such as new, dynamic, fresh, forward-looking, visionary, progressive, or improved in their campaigns because they all denote something positive. Reporters should not repeat these words without independently corroborating the claim except while directly and clearly attributing the words to the person who used them.

Political parties are aware that many people believe what they see and hear in the news media and are influenced by it. So they often try to create “soft news” events which make the leader or candidate look appealing to voters: visiting schools or homes, kissing babies and greeting enthusiastic crowds. Professional journalists cannot ignore soft news, if only because competing media may report it. However, it is often possible to use these soft news opportunities to ask tough questions, especially on issues of concern to ordinary voters. It is important to remember – and remind candidates – that the election is ultimately for the voters, not politicians.

Politicians and their aides also attempt to define and interpret news in ways that favour themselves, their party or their position on a particular event or issue. This is what is known as spin. Again, there is likely to be a spurt in spin during elections. In such situations the least journalists can do for the sake of essential accuracy, fairness and balance is to seek clarifications from the source of the spin and get the counter-spin from the other major candidates. However, reporters should avoid circulating unadulterated spin to the extent possible. It is clearly better for journalists to think for themselves, find out what voters think, and seek experts’ thoughts so that the public benefits from as genuine, clear and thorough a story as possible.

For example, if a candidate promises a new programme, it is necessary to ask for details, including what (if anything) is different about it and how it is to be implemented. In addition it is important to get comments on the subject from opposing candidates, people with relevant knowledge, and ordinary citizens with opinions on the utility and feasibility of such a programme. Similarly, if candidates claim to speak on behalf of the people – suggesting, for example, that “the people overwhelmingly want” this or that – reporters need to ask how they have determined what people want: can they cite any polls or other studies to support the statement?

Reporters must also try to avoid falling prey to intimidation. Some candidates or their aides may directly or indirectly threaten harm in a bid to influence a news report. In such a situation, it would be best – if at all possible – to get the threat on the record, preferably in front of witnesses, and perhaps even include it in the story to expose the attempted intimidation. If this is impossible or too dangerous, it is important to inform editorial decision-makers about the threat so that there can be an institutional response to the problem.

Issues and background

Many politicians compete with each other on personal and identity-related platforms (related to race, caste, ethnicity, etc.) rather than on the basis of their ideas and plans. Since this is not very useful to voters trying to determine who would best serve the public interest, journalists should attempt to shift the focus away from personality and identity politics towards the proposed policy positions and programmes for action of the candidates.

News and current affairs programmes should, above all, inform the public of election issues. For this a range of party spokespersons, as well as experts on the subject, should be sought for comment and explanation of the important issues that need to be discussed during the campaign. Coverage of party leaders and media-friendly candidates should not be at the expense of the main issues of concern or interest to the public.

If the news media are to satisfactorily perform their multiple roles, especially during an election, journalists need to know essential facts about the political history and environment of the country. For example, they need to be familiar with the date of the country’s independence, the structure of the governance system, the names and other details of leading political figures and the main political parties, including their central ideologies, their primary spheres of influence and their relative strength and popularity.

The current political landscape is, of course, essential knowledge for journalists – including the immediate context for the election (especially if it is not a routine one). It is important to identify the key issues that arose during the term of the previous government, how they were handled and whether they were responsible for the present poll. Analysis of the patterns of other recent elections at different levels can also yield useful insights.

Other factors to consider include the extent and experience of democracy in the country, the strength and vigour of its civil society, the respect for the rule of law and human rights among the country’s courts and other authorities, the prevalence and degree of corruption and violence, and the levels of economic or political disparity between various identity groups. All these could become issues in the course of the election.

Some of the other issues worth examining in advance, depending on the previous history of the country and the scope of a particular election, include the pattern (if any) in the stability of previous governments, the role of the army or other powerful forces in the running of the country, and/or interventions (if any) by other nations during previous regimes. Informationabout major internal or trans-boundary conflicts (if any), the names of former heroes or villains who may emerge as an issue or rallying point in the course of the campaign, etc., are also likely to be useful.

Watchdog role

In most democracies the election authority (commission/commissioner) is supposed to be a completely independent agency charged with setting and implementing rules to keep the election free and fair. But the news media’s watchdog role extends to scrutiny of the conduct of the election and the election commission itself. Because the task of running a free and fair election is fairly complicated, reporters need to familiarise themselves with the election commission and its mode of functioning. They also need to know the election rules so that they can expose any violations of the rules and report on action taken to both enforce rules and deal with violations.

The following are questions that can help the media play its watchdog role during an election:

  • Does every eligible citizen have the right to vote? How will they be added to the voters’ list before voting day?
  • Do women and minorities feel safe voting? Will they be protected from threats at the voting booth?
  • Are all political parties equally able to hold public meetings without fear?
    How will they be protected?
  • Are all parties being given equitable time in news and current affairs programmes in the state/public media?
  • Are government officials maintaining neutrality? Is the government favouring any party during the campaign? Are the police extending protection to all parties equally?
  • Are the voting stations secure? Who will guard the ballots and who will count them properly?

If the police are found to be wanting in providing security to and maintaining neutrality towards all parties or if some citizens are being deprived of the right to vote – this is news and the media should report it. The election commission should be asked for a response and political parties should be asked to comment. The media have a responsibility to promote free and fair elections by exposing the weaknesses or failures of the system.

Political conflict

Elections are about possible change and how to handle it. Should there be a change inthe government, in the government’s policies, or in the persons who represent the people? Different opinions on such issues lay the ground for political conflict. A democratic election is a means of peacefully resolving political conflict before it reaches a point of crisis with the potential for physical violence.

Journalists need to look into the possibility that the political conflict in question may extend beyond and beneath the surface factors to some deeper disagreement within the country or society. Awareness of and sensitivity to the underlying roots of conflict – even if it is not a violent conflict – can provide reporters with much more information and insight to communicate during an election than the superficial debates that the media often tend to focus on.

For example, one of the most common causes of conflict is inequitable access to scarce resources such as food, land, housing or jobs. Poverty can fuel conflict. Conflict can also be caused by poor communication among groups who harbour misconceptions and preconceptions about each other. Unequal treatment based on gender, race or ethnicity, social class or religion can incite conflict, especially if such injustice is sanctioned by laws and official policies. Extended and extensive corruption can also trigger conflict, as can fear of and suspicions about neighbouring nations.

Conflict that is not resolved peacefully through democratic politics tends to turn violent. By responsibly reporting on the underlying causes of conflict and providing time and space for constructive discussions about possible solutions to the problem the media can play a significant role in preventing conflict from becoming destructive.

The day of voting is, of course, a major news event because the media must do everything possible to find out whether every voter is able to exercise his or her franchise, in secret, and whether all ballots are collected and safely handed over for counting. In the immediate aftermath of polling, the media have to monitor the counting process to ensure that it is done properly and that the results are not tampered with. This involves being familiar with the election authority’s rules regarding voting and counting, and watching to see that they are followed and, where necessary, enforced.

Interference with the voting process, fraudulent voting and other such electoral malpractices constitute news and must be reported. However, such incidents must be presented in context and not blown out of proportion. It is important to ascertain whether or not the voting process was clean and fair in other areas. One instance of vote-tampering clearly does not invalidate the whole election – it just means that re-polling will be necessary in that particular place. The media must be careful and make sure that only verified, factual information is reported about the voting and counting process, especially since inaccurate reporting inflame passions.

Tips for reporters

Report events exactly as they happen – and not as you would like them to happen. This

means that you must be impartial in every way:

* Give equal prominence to all the major candidates. This means attending an equal number of candidate meetings.

* Be careful not to colour your reports with inflammatory language.

* Report what candidates say and not what interested parties say candidates said.

* Be careful not to be seen to be taking sides in political arguments.

* Do not (in any circumstances whatsoever) accept any inducement from a candidate or his/her supporters. Do not even take a ride in a politician’s car.

* Do not promise any politician (or anyone else for that matter) that a report or story will appear in the paper.

* Report what you see without exaggeration.

* Do not use extravagant language in describing crowd scenes.

* Exercise fair play. If a candidate makes an accusation against his opponent, ask that

opponent for a comment.

John Lawrence, Training Editor of The Nation, Kenya, in “Reporters and the Election,”

Election Reporting Handbook, International Federation of Journalists