2009 Election Coverage: Did Media Assist Citizens in Making an Informed Decision?

Share on facebook
Share on Facebook
Share on twitter
Share on Twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on Linkdin
Share on pinterest
Share on Pinterest

In Media Monitoring Africa’s final weekly report on the 2009 Elections, we focus on the overall performance of media in terms of their role in enabling South African citizens to fully and effectively participate in their democracy through the provision of relevant and timely information in the lead up to the elections on April 22.

This report covers the period March 13 until April 26

Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) has conducted widespread monitoring of media across South Africa. This has resulted in the collection of a large amount of data enabling both media’s performance as a whole to be analysed, and individual media to be compared in relation to each other.

While it is hoped that all interested in media find these reports informative and useful, in the first instance, MMA’s election reports are created for the purpose of assisting media to reflect on their practice and inform future improvement. Because of this, this weekly report will highlight what in particular could be expected of media in their reporting on the elections in terms of best practice. This standard provides core principles against which media’s performance can be analysed, questioned, praised and constructively criticized.

Analysis framework

In our first weekly report, we wrote:
“During elections, our methodology is particularly concerned with the broader role for media to hold government to account on behalf of citizens. While media, in particular commercial media, do not sign a formal contract stating that they endorse and will fulfill this role, this expectation must be recognised and honoured in support of the argument for a free and plural media.

Where a democratic government does not provide easily accessible and complete information on government performance to the public so that they are enabled to hold their elected representatives to account, citizens must get this information from other sources, and the most logical source and expertise for this is the media.

As such, the monitoring process captures pertinent information relating to political participation, including information around representation of gender, race and other core human rights issues. Key to media coverage during an election period, the monitoring also addresses the fair and equitable treatment of political parties, and the quality of information provided.”

Using this initial framework, we now turn to what is ideally expected of media’s approach to their election coverage and the contents of their reports. There are eight key components that MMA hopes to see in quality news coverage during an election period:

1. Adoption of a citizen’s agenda: Focus on key issues of importance to lives of South Africans.

These issues relate to Poverty, Service Delivery (Health, Education, Welfare, Housing, Public Utilities such as water and electricity, etc.), Youth Unemployment, Safety/Crime, Gender Equality, and Children.

The choice of a political party for government will affect the lives of citizens through the policies they adopt and implement, or not adopt and implement. If media does not focus on the key issues of importance in the lives of citizens in their reports, analysis and engagement with parties, then media are severely limiting (potential) voter capacity to make informed decisions in democratic processes whose outcome will affect their lives.

2. Fairness towards all political parties in coverage needs to be exhibited in coverage – taking into account size of party, presence in parliament, etc.

If all coverage is given to only a few parties, then voter’s choices are falsely limited, and if coverage deliberately favours or disfavours political parties, then voters are not given balanced and accurate information to inform their choice.

3. Unpacking of manifestos and engaging with party representatives with regards to important issues, and exploring validity of responses and solutions proposed.

As it is primarily through their manifestos that parties indicate their ideology and intent, deep engagement on manifestos with regards to the key issues should be one of the highest priorities for media’s election coverage. Analysis of manifestos, and engaging further with parties on the detail, enables voters to really know if, and understand how, parties intend to address their concerns, and whether what is being proposed is valid and can be realistically delivered. For the ruling party, it should also explore how the party has delivered on previous manifestos and promises made, to feed into the cycle of accountable government.

4. Representation of the concerns of the marginalised, in particular women and children, and specifically rural women and children.

As has been discussed in the previous two weekly reports, women and children form two of the most marginalised groups in South Africa. Women and children, in particular rural women and children, remain largely voiceless in media and government policy. However, women and children suffer the most from poverty and poor public service delivery, and a variety of heath and social ills, including abuse. As South African citizens, who also have a significant demographic presence across the population, their voices and concerns must be heard, over and above any others.

5. Role and responsibilities of the SA Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).

The IEC has a very large and important role to fulfil, particularly as a non-partisan institution that must remain impartial and competent in the eyes of citizens. The role and responsibilities of the IEC must be understood and its performance reported on in order for the institution to be held accountable to its mandate, and so that the final results are credible.

6. Explanation of voting system on a timely basis, including: voter registration, provincial and national election systems, how voting should proceed on the day, etc.

Clearly, citizens must understand their role as voters and the consequences of decisions made at the ballot box, in order to effectively and meaningfully participate in the process.

7. Encouragement of voter registration and voting (importance of voting).

For truly meaningful results that produce a government that is representative of the country, all eligible citizens should be registered to vote and actually make their vote. All media coverage should be inspiring, motivating citizens to fulfil one of their vital roles in democracy and vote for the party of their choice for government, unless without due reason (such as illegitimacy of process).

8. Election Day follow-up: safety, behaviour (voters, parties and IEC), results etc.

To booster confidence in the system and credibility of the results, citizens need to know of the results and performance of all authorities and institutions involved in managing the election process on a timely basis. Citizens must see whether it was a free and fair election until the new government is called and in power. This knowledge justifies citizen participation in the election process and enables belief in the credibility of the results, or alternatively, citizens can understand why the results called are open to question and should be subject to review.

Ideally, follow-up should also move further than the process of elections and explore the consequences and implications of how citizens cast their vote. Good reporting could analyse such elements as voter turnout, the general pattern of voting across districts and provinces (information that should be available from the IEC or media’s own resources) according to demographics and local issues, and the implications of new party representation at national and provincial level governments. This information gives an indication as to the level and interest of citizen participation, on what basis people voted (such as perceived racial or party alliance, ideology, or specific local issues), and the potential impact on government policy and the state of South Africa’s democracy itself.

Review of monitoring results

MMA Elections 2009 Topic Coverage Breakdown –
Listed in order down to 1%

Topic Average
IEC/Election Logistics 18%
Party politics 14%
Political Party Campaigning (last resort only) 13%
Justice System 10%
Party Manifesto 6%
Political Violence & Intimidation 5%
Rates & Services 3%
Personalities and Profiles 3%
Corruption 2%
Opinion Polls 2%
Provincial and Local Government 2%
South Africa – National ( Including SA Government & Parliament) 2%
Voter Education & Registration 2%
Corruption: Government & Party 2%
Coalitions and Party Co-operation 1%
Crime 1%
Human Rights 1%
General 1%
Media 1%
Education 1%
Development 1%
Labour, Strikes, Unemployment 1%
Demonstrations 1%
Election funding 1%
Economics 1%
Arts/Culture/Entertainment/Religion 1%
2/3 majority 1%
Gender 1%

MMA Elections 2009 Political Party Coverage Breakdown

African National Congress – ANC 45%
Congress Of The People – Cope 17%
Democratic Alliance/Demokratiese Alliansie – DA 11%
Inkatha Freedom Party – IFP 5%
Other Parties 3%
Vryheidsfront Plus/Freedom Front Plus – VF+ /FF Plus 3%
Independent Democrats – ID 3%
United Democratic Movement – UDM 3%
African Christian Democratic Party – ACDP 2%
South African Communist Party – SACP 2%
Azanian People’s Organisation – Azapo 1%
Pan Africanist Congress Of Azania – PAC 1%
United Christian Democratic Party – UCDP 1%
Africa Muslim Party – AMP 1%
National Democratic Convention 0%
Minority Front – MF 0%
Sindawonye Progressive Party – SPP 0%
Ximoko Party – XP 0%
Dikwankwetla Party Of South Africa – DPSA 0%
Keep It Straight And Simple – Kiss 0%
Alliance For Democracy And Prosperity – ADP 0%
Christian Democratic Party – CDP 0%
Labour Party Of South Africa – LP 0%
National Alliance – NA 0%
Izwi Lethu 0%
Peace And Development Party – PDP 0%
Peace And Justice Congress – PJC 0%

• Reports that included a gender perspective added up to less than 2.4% of items.
• Female sources accounted for 25% of the total sought in news items.

Media Performance

Using the results of MMA’s monitoring, following is a discussion on how media’s performance in general compares against the eight key components defined above:

1. Adoption of a Citizen’s Agenda

Previous weekly reports have gone into detail over the progress lack of focus, or indeed of any significant coverage, on key issues of importance to the lives of South Africans. The results above, revealing the accrual of data for this longer monitoring period, demonstrate again how media for the most part have failed citizens considerably in this regard. Poverty, service delivery, health, education, children/child abuse, HIV/Aids, and women all fared poorly in election coverage, with the lion’s share going to issues that should have been much further down the list of topics in order of attention received.
A particularly sad indication of poor reporting skills is in not seeing the strong link between many issues that are ordinarily reported on, and continued to be over the election period, and election coverage. As such, stories around service delivery failure in health and child abuse, for example, did not become a key part of election coverage and a platform from which to engage with political parties and form the focus of political analysis.

While there were some excellent pieces produced by media that focused on health, education and children, these tended to be the exception rather than the rule in overall content of their reports.

2. Fairness to all political parties contesting the election.

The results reveal that on the surface, media proved to be largely fair towards all political parties in their coverage, including the SABC, with 97% of all items monitored being monitored as fair (I.e. the item neither clearly favours or disfavours any political party). As has been expressed by the SABC, it is to be expected that the ruling party receive a significant share of the attention.  Coverage is required to be equitable, which means that party membership, representation in parliament, and newsworthiness need to be considered in the coverage they receive, and this balanced with ‘in the public interest’ considerations.

Reflecting the same argument made in the first weekly report, the attention paid to the new party Cope was inappropriate in this light, with its ‘news worthiness’ overshadowing the attention that potentially should have been paid ‘in the public interest’ to other parties with seats in parliament. Furthermore, the content of reports on parties demonstrated a focus on pure campaigning activities, personalities, and party conflict, to the detriment of engagement over key issues as previously defined. In doing so, to some extent, party electioneering activities such as political advertising was extended by media.

Given Cope’s success in the elections, and their presence in parliament corresponding with a fall in support for other small but older parties, it must be questioned to what extent media assisted in Cope’s campaigning. A very recent newcomer, the party would have had very limited resources that could not be realistically deployed to campaign extensively across all provinces. The attention paid by media to this party would have enabled far reaching awareness of the party and its message beyond its own capacity and perhaps at the expense of awareness around other competing parties, who also struggle to have their message heard.

There is a stronger argument to be made for media to report significantly more ‘in the public interest’ rather than on ‘newsworthy’ stories during an election period. This is not only about ensuring that citizens receive information that assists them in making an informed decisions, but also about the fairness and consequences of reporting on traditionally ‘newsworthy’ stories. While Cope’s appearance on the scene and the political conflict between the ANC and Cope may be newsworthy, the consequences of focusing on these events over key issues and other parties could be interpreted as unfair to competing political parties and South Africans in general.

Similarly, the attention paid to whether or not the NPA would go ahead and lay charges against Jacob Zuma, and then the decision not to, could also be argued to have been too excessive for an election period. While it is important for citizens to know of activities outside the election process that could impact on the ability of a person to carry out duties if voted into government office and the potential impact on the credibility of the justice system, the amount of attention devoted to this situation – as exhibited by the topic of ‘Justice’ – without seeing a concomitant increase in other election coverage opens up the possible argument that the dominance of this coverage was not in the best interests of citizens, when issues such as poverty and service delivery remain of greater relevance to their lives.

Examples of good performance in demonstrating equitable reporting were present, and indicated that a nuanced understanding of fair treatment to political parties is possible in media coverage. Although media dedicated the largest proportion of political party coverage to the ruling party, there were instances where opposition/smaller parties were given positive coverage. For instance, the 11 April SABC 3, 7 pm news highlighted opposition/smaller parties’ positive contribution to democracy. It reported that whilst the ANC is expected to win a majority of votes, opposition parties believe that they have a bigger role to play, and interviewed Cope, ACDP, APC and ID.

3.  Unpacking of manifestos and engaging with parties over key issues.

Media as a whole performed poorly on this, though certain individual media did perform better than others, with analyses of party manifestos and key issues. This result is concerning and reflects inadequate attention in newsrooms to these key issues. While reporters themselves may lack the specialist knowledge to analyse manifestos beyond the “how many women, how many men” question, South Africa has a number of expert individuals and organisations available to assist media and reporters in exploring pertinent issues. It is also a strong indication that media should be seeking further development of their news editors and reporters to improve their standard of practice in producing quality reports that uphold the argument for a free and plural media.

At an individual media level, there were exceptional examples of how media could produce quality reports and programmes. The SABC FM radio channels, Lesedi in seSotho and Motsweding in seTswana both proved the ability of SA media to meaningfully engage with communities and political parties over party manifestos. The stations took parties to communities on a weekly basis, and gave communities the opportunity to ask questions around how their manifestos would address their concerns, particularly with regards to service delivery issues and public infrastructure. This included questions aimed at the ruling party, asking how they would deliver on promises on road infrastructure for example, when they previously had shown themselves unable to do so, with roads falling into severe disrepair.

This type of coverage contributes towards the community being able to cast an informed vote by facilitating and providing coverage of fundamental issues that voters require in an election period.

While newspapers are unable to offer the immediacy and detailed debate of radio and TV programmes, they are still able to provide space for direct engagement with party representatives. The Sunday World (19/04/09) provides such an example, featuring an article on an interview conducted with UDM leader Bantu Holomisa. Questions posed by the journalist to Holomisa included:
• Is the UDM going to do anything to help the destitute?
• How would UDM deal with border control?
• List four successes that demonstrate readiness to rule?
• Does the UDM simply exist to ensure Bantu Holomisa has an income?

This form of coverage should be commended and encouraged during an election period by media houses. The questions engaged the UDM on their manifesto and readiness/ability to rule, thus educating voters on the UDM and contributing towards a more informed vote. In addition, on the same day, Sunday World also featured another article posing similar questions to the ACDP leader.

A further example is the Mail and Guardian (17-23 April 2009), which provided a five page “Election Guide” offering valuable information to voters, such as:

• A tally of the ANC government’s big wins and losses since the last round of election promises;
• Plan and promises of the main political parties i.e. ANC, DA, Cope, ACDP, IFP, ID and UDM. The Mail and Guardian not only mentioned the plans and promises, but even assessed the validity and sustainability of these promises and plans;
• A profile of the main political parties as well as their leaders;
• A feature that explored what some of the smaller political parties are about, including Women Forward, New Vision Party, Kiss, Ximoko, APC and A Party. The information provided regarded their respective membership size, origin, branches and issues they focus on.

The Mail and Guardian’s election guide provided all the vital components that media should be providing to voters. It informed voters about political party manifestos, educated voters on the political parties (i.e. leaders, origin, history), and enabled voters to know the validity of these plans and promises. In addition, it explored the ruling party’s delivery on previous manifestos and promises made. This type of coverage is to be highly commended, and is indeed highly commended by MMA.

4. Representation of the concerns of the marginalised

Again, media on the whole performed very poorly on this component as exhibited across the Topics list, percentage of female sources, and percentage of stories with a gender dimension.  Considering the disproportional impact of poverty, social and health related problems on each group and their strong presence in South African demographics, children and women were severely under-represented in election coverage.

While gender and children did not need to form the primary focus of all election reports, a mainstreaming of gender and child-related issues across many reports with relevant topics should have been adopted. Certain media did provide space for organisations and individuals such as professional political analysts to contribute with commentary on gender-related issues on the rare occasion. However, on the whole, these were not driven or produced by the media themselves.

In its 16/04/09 edition, the Sowetan continued with a regular feature, Woman, though with a contribution by Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre and Women’s Net commenting on political party approaches to dealing with gender-based violence, as outlined in their manifestos (or not). This is a good example of a media enabling organisations with expertise to make relevant contributions to the election discourse. However, media need to see that gender, and indeed children, are not isolated issues unrelated to other key concerns such as health, justice, public service delivery and poverty.

The very obvious lack of attention paid to women and children, and related issues, does not bode well for change in their marginalised positions in society and public policy that can improve the quality of their lives.

5. Role and responsibilities of the IEC

This is where media need to be congratulated. Most media paid regular attention to the IEC and its representatives, both in terms of their public announcements and role in the election process.  Some analysis was also exhibited in terms of IEC responses to such issues as non-resident South Africans being able to vote. While some newspapers and radio stations did not engage around the IEC’s role and responsibilities, on the whole, citizens should have garnered sufficient knowledge from media to understand what is required of the institution.

City Press (19/04/09) for example, featured an article holding the IEC to account.  The weekend paper reported that Franksdale informal settlement had not been visited by the IEC to register or talk to them about elections. Thus, this Cape Town community felt that they were “forgotten South Africans that had been overlooked by the political establishment”. In addition to holding the IEC accountable, the article also provided a voice to the concerns of a marginalised community.

However, also tied into the following component (6), some media also made unfortunate reports that undermined the rights of citizens or did not inform them of their rights in IEC-role related reports. One example is a Sowetan article (24/04/09) on an elderly voter who required assistance from an IEC officer to cast her vote because she had difficulty with seeing. Apparently the officer also allowed an ANC regional executive member to be present when her vote was cast for Cope, and this information then rapidly spread through the village. The article quoted the lady’s grandson as being concerned that this information being made public by the ANC representative could put her in danger when the area primarily supports the ANC. No mention of the article was made on the lady’s legal rights to privacy, nor of the IEC official’s responsibility to protect that privacy.

6. Explanation of the voting system on a timely basis

This is also where media assisted citizens, with many newspapers featuring reports and diagrams illustrating the process that would be expected to go through in order to cast their vote. Sunday World (19/04/09) for example, featured an article entitled “Elections are here – guidelines you need to know before voting”, and was presented in a question-answer style format. The article answered informative questions such as:
• Why should I vote?
• Who can vote?
• What do I do once I have registered?
• Where do I vote?
• What happens at the voting station?

While radio stations were obviously limited in their capacity to demonstrate the process, it was rare for radio to discuss what voters would be facing at their local voting station. However, some SABC radio stations covered the voting process and SABC television channels carried a diagram of how to cast your vote.

However, in terms of understanding how citizen’s votes work toward the election of government representatives at provincial and national level, media fell far short in facilitating understanding of this important facet of their democracy. This could indeed be a reflection of a lack of understanding around the process of government formation amongst journalists themselves.

Much was made of the opportunity for certain voters who might experience difficulties with voting on April 22, or require assistance in general, to cast their votes earlier. However, little information was disseminated in coverage on special voting considerations and the rights of voters to privacy, for instance, when they require assistance. In some advertisements appearing on television, it was acknowledged that a person’s vote is their secret, which they can choose to disclose or not. However, as was seen in media coverage, some people required assistance in actually marking their ballot paper, and some disclosed in reports who they voted for.

Furthermore, very little information was provided in coverage on what to do or where to go when encountering other difficulties in trying to cast a vote, such as intimidation, and difficulty in accessing a voting station or even ballot papers.
In addition to informing voters how to vote, and what their vote means, citizens must also be informed of their rights in the process.

7. Encouragement of voter registration and voting

A large swathe of media can be commended for adopting a strong ‘go out and vote’ approach in their reports in the days before the election, also reflecting political party messages in this regard. While MMA did not observe any newspaper clearly endorsing or supporting any particular political party, the message to go out and vote was carried prominently and strongly, with some newspapers using front page editorials to encourage people to go out and vote.

However, it must be noted that this would have had no impact on those who had not registered – almost 20 percent of the eligible population, or some 6 million people.

A legitimate democracy relies at the very least on widespread public participation in the election process, and the importance of voting, and thus the importance of registering to vote, should be stressed from a very early date, prior to when voter registration is no longer an option. While an almost 80 percent registration figure is laudable for a system that does not make voting a legal requirement, it also shows that an enormous number of people did not receive the message or were not sufficiently encouraged to vote.

While just over 77 percent voter turnout (as a proportion of registered voters) was higher than the previous election, it should also concern those who aim for a healthy and vital democracy that 23 percent of registered citizens did not or were not able to vote, and that this could very well be the result of feeling disenfranchised from democratic processes – believing that their vote, their voice, does not count and would not change anything. If their reason for being unable to vote was because of problems encountered at the voting station, then this is also a considerable concern for both the IEC and the election process in general, and could result in discouraging citizen participation further.

8. Election Day Follow-up

The release of the election results was timely, and demonstrated a well coordinated effort between media and the IEC to ensure that citizens with access to TV, radio or newspapers would be aware of these results when they became official.

While the elections were declared “free and fair” by the IEC on Friday April 24, a number of reports on incidents of election violence, farm workers unable to vote, and insufficient ballot papers seemingly still had to be followed up on. Events such as these have an impact on the working of the election process, and as such, on the determination of whether an election is truly free, fair and legitimate. Questions around what happened or what is to happen to those citizens unable to vote because of insufficient ballot papers remain unanswered, including what is legally required of the state or the IEC to enable these people to cast their vote, or what recourse citizens have when facing this situation. The instances of election violence, while reported as less than previously experienced or indeed prepared for in various security measures, should be explored in terms of previous experience and potential impact, in addition to the consequences for those involved.

Though the ANC retained its ruling party position, with only a small loss in its share of votes, a great deal more analysis could be directed towards how people voted in relation to the increased number of voters and issues specific to certain areas. Reports made note of increased voter turnout, indeed congratulating people for becoming more involved, in particular the higher youth turnout. However, if more reports focus on how voting and the voting results demonstrated changes in the electorate and South Africa’s democracy, it would inform citizens about changes to their society and democratic system, in addition to supporting government accountability. Such changes to be explored could be the implication for ruling party support with an increased voter turnout but fall in proportion of votes received. While ANC remains the ruling party, peoples’ willingness to change allegiance for whatever reason, could indicate that South Africa is now heading towards a true multi-party democracy.

Some media should be congratulated for moving quickly on analysing the consequences of the election results for South Africa. The City Press (26/4/09) for example, featured two articles exploring how the re-elected ANC will be able to deliver on its promises given the current economic constraints.

-Tanya Owen and Prinola Govenden-

Like this article?

Share on facebook
Share on Facebook
Share on twitter
Share on Twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on Linkdin
Share on pinterest
Share on Pinterest

Leave a comment