The media’s right to function freely during the electoral process is often limited by curbs on their ability to criticise actions – or lack of action – by the government and political parties, to investigate corruption and to operate independently of political pressures. In some countries the media face restrictions imposed by the government, such as direct censorship and/or threats of such censorship. Sometimes the media have to contend with other forms of coercion, including physical attacks, which are at times backed or, at least, tolerated by the government. Under such circumstances it is naturally difficult for the media to ensure that election coverage is free and fair.
Censorship, as it is now understood, includes a range of actions from direct censorship through abduction to murder, which often have the sanction or tacit support of the government. The term ‘direct censorship’ refers to improper and unlawful prior restraints on publication. It is also used to refer to communications from government officials that explicitly or implicitly threaten direct censorship or some other dire consequence if the media publish or broadcast items viewed as unfavourable to the ruling establishment.
A more indirect but potentially effective form of censorship involves government action or inaction that makes journalists unsure, if not fearful, about their personal safety, the security of their families and/or the safety of their professional equipment. It can also take the form of false charges or mischievous cases against individual journalists or media establishments. This kind of insidious intimidation can be more powerful than the type of measures that are traditionally seen as censorship, including the detention of journalists. Often both indirect pressure and more direct forms of censorship are used in tandem to get the intended message across.
Faced with such harassment, many media outlets and professionals are liable to resort to some degree of self-censorship in an effort to avoid the adverse fallout of upholding freedom of expression. Self-censorship is rarely a matter of real, voluntary choice under such circumstances.
Overt and covert violations of the democratic principle of media freedom make it difficult, if not impossible, for the news media to play the important role assigned to them within a democratic system. Official failure to protect the media and to take action against those responsible for interfering with the fundamental right to freedom of expression can only result in subverting the elections and undermining democracy.
Internationally-recognised standards that protect freedom of expression as well as the security of the person need to be incorporated into election-related laws and rules in order to safeguard the media’s role in fostering democracy by reporting elections without fear or favour.
Public opinion polls have become a common feature in most elections across the world. Conducted by opinion pollsters and research institutions prior to and in between elections, they may be commissioned by the media, political parties or civil society organisations. Such surveys have not only become a familiar part of the election scene in many parts of the world but they have also emerged as a vital aspect of elections reporting, with both print and broadcast media regularly presenting their results. Public opinion polls typically assess not only public support for various political parties but also public opinion on a wide range of political, economic and social issues.
It is important for journalists and other media practitioners to understand the nature, purpose and value of such polls and make informed decisions about the most appropriate ways of conducting and reporting them in a manner that, ultimately, serves the public interest.
Opinion surveys can serve many important functions for many different sets of actors in society: politicians and political parties, academics, media professionals and the public. Depending on their scale and scope, opinion polls can help journalists to not only track the popularity of current and would-be rulers, but also gauge the public mood and identify citizens’ concerns, understand the different priorities and perspectives of diverse sections of society, and determine people’s views on key national events and issues. Such polls also provide an opportunity for citizens to voice their opinions in public and compare their own views with those of their compatriots.
It is important to note that polls can distort public opinion or provide only a partial view of it if the sampling methodology does not pay adequate attention to the need for adequate representation of people of different races/ethnicities, different faith and language groups, different regions, different ages and sexes, and different socio-economic backgrounds – rich and poor, urban and rural, etc. The findings of a poll can also be influenced by the way questions are framed.
Coverage of opinion polls seeking to evaluate the relative chances for victory of the competing parties or candidates is a specialised aspect of election reporting. Such polls are generally conducted at regular intervals through the course of an election campaign and include “exit polls,” which canvas the opinions of voters on their way out of voting booths after casting their ballots on election day. Projections about the likely outcome of the elections are often made on the basis of exit polls. However, election authorities in some countries have imposed an embargo on the dissemination of the findings of such polls until the last day of voting – especially in cases of multi-phase polls – on the ground that they could otherwise influence voters’ choices.
Media coverage of information gathered through polls and projections based on them can be controversial, especially if the surveys are commissioned or conducted by sources that are not seen as impartial. It is widely recognised that opinion polls can be manipulated by political parties or other interests to influence voters. Since polls and projections can have an effect on voter behaviour, news and analysis based on them must be presented with due balance, fairness and objectivity.
The media should only report polls conducted by professional polling companies that follow strict, preferably transparent, procedures in order to provide an accurate picture of people’s opinions at that particular point in time. It should be understood that opinion polls only provide a snapshot of people’s opinions at the time they were asked the questions. Such polls cannot predict how opinions – and votes – will change if voters gain access to new information. The results of opinion polls should not be regularly turned into lead stories because they can influence voters (as well as the media) to follow so-called popular opinion instead of thinking for themselves. Many reputed news organisations the world over do not give individual opinion polls much prominence because their findings are not always sufficiently reliable.
In any case the source of the opinion poll or projection (e.g., who commissioned and paid for it and who conducted it) should be included in any report on its findings, along with information on the methodology, the size and nature of the sample, the statistical margin of error, the period during which the poll was conducted in the field, the number of people surveyed and other contextual information that can help people evaluate the data. If apparent gaps between political parties or candidates fall within the statistical margin of error, this fact should be clearly noted in the story. Other reputable polls conducted around the same time should be reported alongside so that the results of a single survey are not over-emphasised. Also, polling trends should be reported so as to make it clear that the results of one survey do not add up to a definitive picture.
Guidelines from respected polling organisations often recommend that news stories based on public opinion surveys include the following information:
- The date/dates of the interviews
- The name of the sponsoring organisation
- The quantitative characteristics of the sample: population base, sample size (total number of respondents) and sub-samples, if any
- The manner in which interviewing was done (face-to-face, on the telephone or using a written questionnaire)
- The exact wording of key questions
- The margin of error
Most media-commissioned polls tend to be based on the horse race model: who’s ahead, who’s behind? Although they are often unconvincing and open to manipulation and misjudgment they tend to play an excessive role in campaign coverage, getting top billing in news bulletins and on front pages. Some people suggest, with some reason, that such poll-based stories are nothing more than pseudo-news manufactured by the media, who commission it, pay for it, and then report on it.
On the other hand, public opinion polls focusing on issues can serve as news gathering tools to help identify the expectations of the electorate in terms of governance. This form of journalism is sometimes called “precision journalism” – using scientific research methods (quantitative or qualitative), particularly from the social sciences, to collect and report news.
Since journalists are often expected to comment on polls commissioned by others, they need a basic understanding of polling techniques. Familiarity with polling methodologies would equip them to analyse and interpret the survey data accurately and to identify possible areas of manipulation or misinterpretation.
Marta Lagos, a public opinion pollster from Chile, provided this advice to political party pollsters while assisting in the democratic transition in Namibia, which could apply just as well to journalists anywhere:
“You must have information on what people are thinking: what people want in social, economic and political terms, and how much they expect from what they want. The question of expectations is crucial for the stability of the political process after the election has taken place.
“You have to have information about political parties, the organisations that are taking place in the election. Which are partners? Which are your opponents? What are their characteristics? What are their messages? You need information about institutions. For example, what is a role of the church as an institution in the political arena?
- “The selection of issues is most important. Among the most important are:
- Information about political parties: which parties the individual likes
- Voter intention: how the individual voted in the last election and whether he or she is staying with the same party or changing his/her mind or still undecided
- The personality traits of the candidate: what the individual likes the most and the least
- Confidence in the performance of institutions – parliament, the justice system, the armed forces, the media
- Political process: is the individual confident that the process is going to be fair?
- Attitudes towards the importance of the vote: does the individual feel that his or her vote counts, that it matters whether he/she votes? Such information can indicate the likely turnout of the election
- Attitudes towards politicians: are they corrupt, are they only looking out for their own interests, are they reliable and trustworthy?
- The reliability of the media: does the individual believe what he or she sees on TV, hears on the radio, reads in the newspapers?”
Reporting political conflict
During election campaigns candidates often trade accusations, sometimes using unparliamentary language or worse. While the media may report specific allegations or insults it is important for journalists to try to get a response or reaction from the other side. Balance is more than just a courtesy; it is a necessity – and never more so than during an election.
Sometimes hate speech surfaces in the run-up to an election. Hate speech is any form of utterance, including old prophesies and metaphors, which has the effect of denigrating or demonising a person or a community and thereby promoting hatred towards them. Such speech often suggests that certain people are less than human because of the race, tribe, caste or religion they belong to (or thanks to other such markers of identity) and advocates their persecution or destruction as a group.
If the person making the hate speech is a public figure, what he or she says may have to be covered. But hate speech, which is an offence that violates internationally recognised human rights, should never be reported unchallenged. Journalists need to work extra hard to get reactions to hate speech – not only from those under attack but also from independent experts and human rights advocates – and include their responses and comments in the story.
The following are some general guidelines on covering conflict which may be useful to keep in mind during elections as well:
Try to avoid imprecise and accusatory words such as massacre, assassination and genocide, which tend to inflame more than inform (unless the events in question have been legally established as such). If political candidates use words like these, they should be directly attributed to the person concerned, not reported as fact.
Be careful while using descriptive words such as terrorised, brutalised or devastated; since those are generally the words of people on one side of the conflict, who see themselves as victims, they would be more acceptable in quotes than in the reporter’s own text.
Avoid using labels such as terrorist, fanatic, fundamentalist or extremist. As the saying goes, one person’s terrorist could be another’s freedom fighter. The reporter’s job is not to favour one view or the other, whatever his/her personal opinion may be. The professional way out would be to identify groups by the name or label they use for themselves. If political candidates or other news sources use other labels to describe some groups the words should be clearly and directly attributed to that particular person, not reported as fact.
The Safety Manual of the International Federation of Journalists makes it clear that no story is worth a journalist’s life. That should be the starting point for every journalist: from the editor to the eager and enthusiastic freelance correspondent looking for the big story. Journalists must learn to survive and to avoid injury, jail, expulsion, abduction or any of the other perils of the profession – and still, if possible, get the story.
In some parts of the world reporting on elections can be dangerous. The following are some guidelines on staying safe in difficult and potentially violent situations:2
Never carry a gun or a weapon.
Get basic first aid training. This can come in useful for self-help as well as in assisting an injured colleague.
Know your rights. It is useful to have an understanding of existing regulations relating to areas of unrest and to know which specific areas within a country are affected by strife. This knowledge will enable journalists to challenge with confidence any member of the security forces who says, for example, that photography is not allowed or that the media cannot enter or must leave an area, when no such rules are in place. On the other hand, an uninformed or irresponsible act can not only endanger the individual journalist concerned but also lead to repercussions for colleagues.
Know your destination. Be as prepared as possible before setting out on an assignment. Find out what political, racial, religious or other form of conflict exists in the country or a particular part of the country. Prior information can keep journalists out of trouble. One way to gather information is to talk to other journalists and network with other people familiar with the lay of the land. Journalists who have experienced problems in a particular area have a duty to warn other journalists (including colleagues from other media establishments) to be careful.
Make contacts. Get to know the media officers of all the major organisations in the area. Look out for press marshals, if any, at rallies and marches and ask such designated persons for help in case of any difficulty. If possible, survey the route/venue ahead of a major protest march or political rally – looking for telephones that can be used, vantage points from which a potentially volatile event can be watched and reported without getting too close for comfort and safety. Survey the roads in the neighbourhood and where they lead to in case it becomes necessary to leave in a hurry. Learn and observe local community protocol, including who in the community should be spoken to first and how to address community leaders.
Dress appropriately. Wear comfortable clothing that does not limit freedom of movement. Dress to be inconspicuous: attire that attracts attention is best avoided in a trouble zone. Shun obviously expensive items of clothing and accessories that could attract criminals. Avoid T-shirts with political slogans. It may be wise to steer clear of the colours adopted by political movements and parties active in the area. Party badges and other signs of political partisanship should also be avoided. While some journalists prefer formal wear, others believe that it is better not to be too well-dressed for fear of being mistaken for police officers or other officials. There is a debate about whether or not it is always better to be instantly identifiable as a journalist: some reporters think it is prudent to wear a T-shirt with the words “Press” or “Media” on it while others point out that journalists are sometimes targeted precisely because they represent the media. There is no easy or definitive answer. It is best for journalists to try and figure out what would be advisable in a particular situation.
Befor e leaving home.The most basic rule of covering conflict is to never travel alone, as far as possible. If only one person from a news organisation is available, it is worth trying to find a fellow journalist from another one to travel with. Even though journalism is an inherently competitive field, colleagues from rival establishments can still watch out for each another. It is also important to share details of the destination and duration of the assignment with the designated editor, other colleagues and family members. Someone at home needs to know what to do and who to contact in case of any trouble during the assignment. It is absolutely essential for journalists going into danger zones to keep at least one person – in the office, home, association or union – informed about his/her whereabouts at all times.
In the field. It makes sense to listen to the locals: people living in a region or an area usually know best. Carry a press identification card and keep it handy. Watch out for big crowds, which often serve as a good pointer to what is happening or could unfold. However, it may not be sensible to stop the vehicle in front of the crowd or try to drive through it. If things are too quiet and there are few or no people on the streets, it could be an indication of danger. If caught in the middle of a disturbance, move away without running (a running person could become a target) and without attempting to cross directly from one side of a confrontation to the other. If there are other journalists about, stick close to them. Never be seen to be too friendly with the security forces in a conflict situation.
Attempts to use violence and threats of violence to interfere with free and responsible media practice need to be jointly opposed by the media, irrespective of differences of opinion on other matters. The media must be united in highlighting news about any threats against any journalists and collectively request election authorities as well as law enforcement agencies to take steps to protect journalists and enable them to do their work without fear.
In most circumstances a reporter’s best defence against threats is proof that their work is balanced and takes no sides. But in certain situations that alone may not work. In order to build up a culture of respect for media freedom, media houses could use the opportunity of elections to collaborate in drafting a charter for political parties to adopt. Such a document should outline the role of the media in a democracy and highlight the need to give due respect to journalists doing their duty as well as to protect media professionals from harassment (or worse) by party members and others.
An election-related media monitoring group comprising known and respected public personalities could also help foster a culture in which both the media and the political establishment recognise and respect each other’s critical functions within a democracy by investigating and recommending action on any instances of aggression against the press as well as any transgressions by sections of the press.
Political corruption has not only a long history but a wide spread. Very few countries can credibly claim that their political system is, and has always been, free of the phenomenon. There are multiple forms of political corruption and one or other manifestation of the malady is prevalent virtually everywhere in the world, to a greater or lesser extent.
Electoral corruption, which is a subset of political corruption (and, in that sense, a narrower version of the latter) has arguably existed since the early days of elections. Election-related corruption also takes many forms and exists in one way or another in most parts of the world, varying mainly in nature, scale, pervasiveness and intensity. Among the common, blatant forms of electoral corruption are unfair or illegal attempts to influence voters, the deceitful disenfranchisement of legitimate voters, and fraud in the form of the rigging/stealing of votes, the manipulation of the vote counting process, etc.
An important part of the media’s watchdog role in an election is to expose political and electoral corruption, including the less apparent and more insidious kind, because it fundamentally defeats the purpose of elections and subverts democracy.
In order to convincingly perform this important aspect of its duty to the public, the media’s own record must be above reproach. People who live in glass houses cannot afford to throw stones. Not only must individual journalists refrain from succumbing to the temptation to earn extra money or gain other benefits by doing a favour or two for this or that political party or candidate – however routine, trivial and harmless the practice may seem – but media houses must have a code of conduct in place to ensure that all their employees are aware of professional ethics and the consequences of transgression.
Unfortunately, media establishments are sometimes guilty of institutionalising corrupt practices. In such situations regulatory bodies may have a role to play in tackling the problem. However, self-regulatory measures are likely to be more effective in terms of finding acceptable and enduring ways to stem the rot. Conscientious journalists and professional organisations and unions need to assume the lead in this process. A lasting solution will probably emerge from a combination of strict, transparent, in-house preventive steps and firm action under the law of the land by the regulatory authorities that oversee the media, on the one hand, and elections, on the other.
1 From Padraig O’Malley, “Uneven Paths: Advancing Democracy in Southern Africa,” National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Washington, 1993
2 Adapted from the IFJ Safety Manual, “Danger! Journalists At Work,” and a manual for journalists in South Africa, produced by the South African Union of Journalists