Responding to Voters

Difficult as it may be to remember sometimes, an election campaign is essentially for andabout citizens, not politicians. It is the voters among the citizens who have to make serious decisions on voting day and it is they who have to face the consequences of the election results. One of the greatest challenges the media face while covering elections is how to get beyond the sound and fury of political rallies, speeches and news conferences, in order to report what voters want from their elected representatives and what citizens need from their government.

A good way for the media to set their own agenda and ensure independent coverage is to think of themselves as the voter’s voice. The idea behind voters’ voice reporting is that a news agenda which reflects what voters are talking about and highlights voters’ concerns and questions may convince parties and candidates to start talking about those issues, too. The voters’ voice approach can also help reporters find stories and people to interview outside the campaign headquarters of political parties and off the campaign trail of individual candidates.

In order to play their crucial role in democratic nations, especially during elections, the news media need to reflect what ordinary people are talking and concerned about. Typically, in most countries, issues like access to secure employment and decent wages, housing and clean water, roads and public transportation, healthcare and educational facilities tend to be uppermost in the average person’s mind, in addition to safety and security. Most people would like to know what various sections of the political class have in mind and propose to do to deal with such issues. A vital part of the media’s job during elections is to communicate citizens’ concerns to political parties and get responses from their spokespersons and candidates, so that voters are better equipped to evaluate them and decide who to vote for.

Voters’ points of view

Of course, even while helping to amplify voters’ voices, reporting has to be accurate, fair and balanced. It takes time and effort to talk to an adequate cross-section of citizens, including a range of independent community leaders, to identify the most serious concerns of a local community or a particular social group. But the legwork can be rewarding because looking at the elections from diverse voters’ points of view can help reporters find more interesting and meaningful stories than they will get from the political grandstanding typical of election campaigns. The insights gained through such spadework can also yield uncommon and worthwhile questions to ask of politicians.

Talk-shows and call-in programmes can give voice to voters by enabling the public to send in questions they want politicians to answer. Presenters can also ask voters for suggestions on how a problem can be solved. The questions and possible solutions collected from citizens can be presented to politicians for response when they participate in talk-shows, panel discussions, debates or interviews.

While planning to be more responsive to voters the media must keep in mind that a substantial number of voters is likely to belong to traditionally disadvantaged communities which have had no voice in public affairs because they were not allowed or encouraged to speak up – such as the majority of women, certain minorities and the poor as a whole. Then there are communities united not by identity or location but by what they do, such as farmers, teachers, street vendors, construction workers, artisans, war veterans, etc., who have specific concerns that are often not on the radar of politicians. It is important for the media to seek and project the voices of such groups who together generally make up the silent and invisible majority among voters.

Beyond vox-pop

The representation of citizens’ views in the media is often confined to the “vox-pop” genre of reporting, featuring quick quotes gathered from random individuals encountered in the street. This is not enough to identify and convey the many concerns common citizens may have in the run-up to an election. More in-depth interviews with a cross-section of voters are required to get a sense of the experiences and aspirations of ordinary people and communicate their needs and desires to other sections of society as well as to the political class via the media.

For example, a series of articles or programmes probing the experiences and survival strategies of families during an economic crisis or after a major disaster, parents’ dreams for their children and their opinions on the availability and quality of educational and healthcare facilities, youngsters’ views on employment opportunities, senior citizens’ feelings about security and law enforcement, the stumbling blocks in the path of the differently abled, and so on, would provide telling snapshots of regular people’s lives and what they hope those who come into power after the elections will do to improve the situation.

It goes without saying that in the run-up to an election the media have an obligation to report what the political parties and candidates are saying, irrespective of whether or not they reflect issues of real public concern. Voters need to understand the nature of the issues brought to the fore by the election, the platforms and programmes of the parties contesting the election, as well as the character and track record of the candidates in the fray. They also need to know the priorities and predilections of different parties and candidates so that they can ultimately decide for themselves who to cast their votes for.

However, even while covering parties and candidates, it is possible and necessary to ask questions on behalf of ordinary voters: how, and with what means, a party intends to accomplish a particular promise; or why a party is supporting an idea which it previously voted against. Open-ended questions, which generally begin with “why” or “what about” or “how,” are preferable since they require politicians to provide more complete answers than they customarily do.

Journalists must always keep in mind the fact that, just as an election campaign is essentially for and about citizens, election coverage is also primarily for voters. Election-related reports and discussions in the media are meant to provide useful information and insights to citizens as they prepare to exercise their franchise to select the people to whom they will entrust their country and many aspects of their lives over a period of time. This is serious business in which the media play a critical role. Cozy conversations among an in-group of journalists and politicians – which tend to treat readers, listeners and viewers as incidental to the process – cannot serve the purpose.

The following advice to voters offered by Project Vote Smart in the USA may hold a lesson for journalists and politicians, too:

  1. Remember who is in charge. In a democracy the citizen is the boss. Elected officials are temporary hired help.
  2. View the election campaign as the politician’s job application.
  3. Ask yourself if the candidates are giving you, the employer, the information needed to decide who is best for the job.

Voter education

Another aspect of media’s responsibility towards citizens during elections is voter education. In many countries the media have a vital role to play in explaining the purpose of the election and the principles and techniques of voting to the public in a clear manner and on a regular basis.

In the interest of voter education, media houses can consider collaborating to produce essential guideliness for elections – in both print and electronic formats – on matters such as:

  • How to cast the vote
  • Who the competing political parties are and what their symbols and ideas/ ideologies are
  • Who the candidates are, which parties they belong to, their antecedents and qualifications, their specific proposals on various issues of concern to people

The broadcast media, especially, can be effective tools in advancing voter education by providing information to voters about the importance of voting; the voting process – including how, when and where to register to vote, verify proper registration and cast votes; the secrecy of the ballot (which provides safety from retaliation); the functions of the offices under contest; and similar matters.

This function is often referred to as civic voter education. In some circumstances special efforts may be required to reassure the public that the personal safety of voters will be protected on election day. Public education about electoral crimes and avenues for seeking redress can also be broadcast to reduce the incidence of, or attempts at, voter intimidation. Interactive communication with citizens can be facilitated by establishing an open telephone line and publicising the number so that readers can call to ask questions on specific aspects of the campaign, air their views or even complain about election malpractices.

Voter education programmes must be accurate and impartial and they must effectively inform voters about the purpose and procedure of the election. Such programmes should reach the largest possible number of voters – including, where relevant, through programmes in minority languages and special efforts directed at groups traditionally excluded from the political process.

The media can play a critical role in increasing voter participation among groups that may not have been well-integrated into the electoral process in the past. For example, in some countries voting participation rates among women may traditionally have been relatively low. Communities that are geographically isolated, have high illiteracy rates or speak languages different from those of the dominant demographic groupings may also require additional encouragement to exercise their franchise. Radio is particularly important in communicating political messages effectively to diverse, scattered populations.

Publicly owned or funded media are usually obliged to broadcast voter education programmes, at least to supplement other official information initiatives. However, privately owned media – as part of the Fourth Estate – also have a responsibility in this regard.