“No big deal” Poverty, Service Delivery and Election Coverage: Election Report for week ending 3 Apr

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This week MMA looks at key topics of elections stories. The results of the topics of elections coverage present a number of issues to discuss. For this report however, we will build on the prior week’s report “Is the media campaigning for the ANC and COPE?”, and focus on the level of attention devoted to the topics of manifestos, campaigning, poverty and service delivery.

This report addresses the results of media monitoring conducted from 13/03/09 until 01/04/2009

According to the monitoring results, it would appear that media consider simplistic coverage of campaign activities and political conflict to be more important than engaging parties and the public over the content of party manifestos, and how parties believe such major issues as poverty and service delivery should and can be addressed.
The top fifteen covered topics for the period were:

MMA Elections 2009 Topic Coverage Breakdown – Top 15 Topics

Description Avg %
IEC/Election Logistics 23%
Party politics 15%
Political Party Campaigning 15%
Party Manifesto 5%
Political Violence & Intimidation 5%
Justice System 5%
Rates & Services 3%
Provincial and Local Government 2%
Voter Education & registration 2%
Corruption 2%
Coalitions and party co-operation 2%
South Africa – National, including Govt & Parliament 2%
General 2%
Opinion Polls 2%
Personalities and Profiles 1%

Key Topics in Coverage

MMA’s monitoring methodology requires that all election news items be monitored for the main topics of the items. Our methodology also requires that the topic “Campaigning” be chosen only as a last resort. This ensures that where a political leader is shown to be speaking at a campaign event, for example, but is also shown to be engaged in discussion over health service issues in the area, this is not listed under the “Campaigning” topic for elections coverage, but under “Health” or “Service delivery”, depending on the core focus. “Campaigning” then only includes coverage of activities such as rallies, walk-throughs of townships, villages and work-places, and handing out of gifts for example, where the political representatives are not presented as engaged on any subject in particular, but simply smiling and speaking.

In this light, it is thus concerning that “Campaigning” and “Party Politics” are receiving such great attention (both at 15% of coverage) while other topics such as party manifestos (5%) and service delivery (if limited to “rates and service”, 3%) are receiving comparatively far less. Adding the topics of education, health, housing and crime to rates and services, still only results in 5% of coverage. The level of attention afforded to poverty was so low that it did not rate a percentage at all. The justice system as a topic did receive 5% of coverage attention, however this was largely devoted to ongoing issue of Jacob Zuma and charges laid by the NPA, as opposed to the workings of the justice system for citizens in general. Violence and intimidation also received equal attention to party manifestos and the justice system at 5%. While it is important for political conflict to be covered by the media, particularly violent conflict, it must be questioned why this receives equal attention to party manifestos, and more attention than service delivery and poverty.

Poverty and Public Service Delivery

The issues

If you were to gauge what issues are of concern to South Africans through the coverage of elections, then you could be forgiven for thinking that poverty is no longer an issue for the country, and public service delivery is well on the way to meeting citizen expectations. If these conditions were true, then information around party policies proposed to address these issues would be of falling relevance to the future of South Africans.

However, the most recent figures available on poverty in South Africa demonstrate that poverty together with widening inequality is still a massive problem, with 48% of households living below the poverty line (income of less than R322 per person per month, 2005).  Of even greater concern, an estimated two thirds of South African children are living below the poverty line (children living in households with an income less than R1300 per month for the whole household, 2005). Child poverty is of particular concern to South Africa’s future, given that children make up between 39 and 43% of the population (2008). As poverty is linked to poor health and limited access to education, this should generate apprehension about not only the lives of children right now, but also the future of this country as these children grow into adulthood.

Public service delivery is an essential component of government strategy to ease the burden of poverty on many South Africans and to support development that brings people out of poverty. This is regularly recognised in the presentation of the annual budget, and the government’s State of the Nation address (most recently, “Business Un-usual”). Public service delivery is also a means towards realisation of the principles articulated in South Africa’s constitution and associated Bill of Rights, particularly the sections on the Environment (24), Housing (26), Health Care, Food, Water and Social Security (27) and Education (29).

Thus, delivery of health services, education, water, social security and a safe and healthy environment for example, are intrinsically tied to the work of Government in South Africa. They are therefore also tied to the approaches and capacity of political parties in, or aiming to be in, government. In a country like South Africa, where poverty is not limited to a small segment of society, public service delivery is a critical issue that should form a large focus of party campaigns and media coverage. This is particularly the case when research AND media reports have identified serious issues in the public service delivery system, specifically in health, education and justice systems.


Political parties may in fact be addressing these issues in their campaign activities, and proactively engaging with potential supporters over their concerns in these areas. However, this has for the most part not translated into media coverage. If political parties are presenting their policies and solutions to voters, then it may be reasonably expected for media to report on this, analysing and questioning the validity of party proposals. If parties are not presenting policies and solutions, then good media practice demands that media seek to draw this information out of party representatives on behalf of the public.

As discussed in the previous weekly report, there is a strong argument for media to focus more on items that are “in the public interest” including reports that enable citizens to make informed decisions when casting their vote on Election Day, and less on traditional “news worthy” reports that may include information on political parties campaign activities, politicians and government.

However, significant and disproportionate attention is being given to party campaigning activities, political conflict (including violence and intimidation) and criminal procedures against party members. Media seem to be sending a message that citizens need to know more about problems within and between parties than they need to know about party positions on critical issues and their proposed solutions to challenges facing ordinary South Africans.

This is not to say that political instability is not a relevant topic to be covered. South Africans do need to know if a party can maintain its existence in the long term, and has majority support within the party for its leaders and policies. Internal stability is a good indicator of long-term sustainability for political parties. South Africans also need to know whether a situation outside the election process, such as a criminal proceeding or a major health issue, is likely to affect the capacity of candidates for political office to perform their duties should they attain office. Clearly, coverage including analysis of these topics is important for the consideration of citizens. The argument is not that media are covering these issues however, but that the coverage is disproportionate to their relevance to voters at this time.

As evidenced in the results list for topics covered by media, other critical issues are being covered, though not to the extent that could be expected of media during an election period given their importance to South Africa.  Examples of this are crime, corruption, development, education and gender all receiving only 1% of election coverage attention, and voter education and registration receiving 2% of coverage. This is aside from the almost nonexistent coverage of other critical issues, where the scarcity of stories resulted in a zero percentage allocation. In addition to poverty, this includes HIV/Aids, Health, Housing, Gender-Based Violence, Child Abuse, Refugees and Land.

In addition to this, MMA questions why many media have not attempted to critically engage with political parties around issues on poverty and service delivery when they frequently report on these issues separately. Media has often not been presenting these items as elections pieces, where party responses to the issues raised are analysed, but as topics that are independent of the political process.  As noted above, the state of poverty and service delivery in South Africa cannot be disaggregated from politics and the election process. Media has an even greater responsibility during an election period to draw this link, and frame their coverage around it.

The good news

MMA’s media monitoring has not lead to results which are all doom and gloom for the media sector.  Some media have produced excellent items that relate the topics of poverty and public service delivery with political parties and their campaigning activities, though such items are few and far between. Larger daily and weekend newspapers have included opinion and analyses pieces from all sides of the political spectrum and civil society.  Some media have also made responsible editorial decisions around what to focus on, including not providing significant attention to stories around political conflict. Talk Radio 702 in Gauteng is an example of this, where a decision was made to not allow the ANC to hold a press conference at the station over the defection of a Cope member back to the ANC. The decision was described as being made on the basis that the news was not of major national interest, which does indeed resonate with the arguments made in this and the previous daily report, constituting sound editorial practice.


MMA’s latest media monitoring results demonstrate a bias in the topics of election coverage towards party campaigning, political conflict and political stability. This appears to have been at the expense of more relevant topics relating to more critical issues of poverty and service delivery in South Africa. Though citizens are largely aware of the level of poverty in this country, and the many challenges encountered with service delivery, media is not assisting citizens in understanding how the various political parties believe these can and should be addressed. If political parties are not addressing these issues in their campaigning activities, and to all indications this is the case, then it primarily falls to media to assist citizens in this way: Reporting and providing analysis on elections and political parties in relation to issues that are of critical importance to South Africans and the future of South Africa.

End Notes
All statistics are sourced through Statistics South Africa and the Children’s Institute of the University of Cape Town.
Discussion of child poverty and links to other issues is drawn from the website of the Children’s Institute of the University of Cape Town.
See the full list of media reviewed for this report

—Tanya Owen

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