There seem to be only three types of election stories and you probably know them all: the profile, the campaign trail and the war-of-words. Is there more to elections? Decidedly! But good coverage requires some ‘out of the rut’ thinking.
Yes, we need the profiles. Who doesn’t enjoy a sneak peek into the person behind the position? It’s great to know that our politicians have some personality and an often-revealing history. Profiles on political parties are also important, perhaps moreso in informing voters, not only about newcomers and their leaders, but hopefully where they come from, what forces gave rise to their birth, and what their policies are.
Profiles can make for interesting reading, even for those who don’t feel obliged to brush up on their history at every opportunity, but frequently they are dry and dull. Analysis, insight and background are missing and without it, they lack colour and depth.
Follow the leader
I’m sure you are familiar with shoddy campaign trail stories: sometimes these appear as shorts or picture essays; longer stories may have written snapshots of politicians at different rallies, spliced together to make these ritualistic events seem vaguely interesting. Yes, some rallies can provide great stories with sharp-tongued quotes, from hecklers and speakers alike.
But the overall problem with campaign trail stories is that they tend to foreground the stage-managed event and not the issues that made the politicos realise an event in that place and at that time was necessary for their cause in the first place. So, while Zuma is regularly quoted addressing an ANC rally, the service-delivery issues and local politics in the area that are of crucial concern to the locals, are barely mentioned at all. Such stories urgently need an injection of the oxygen of real human experiences of government policies, which revitalises election reporting by linking partisan polemics to the daily lives of real people.
The lack of concern for citizens’ interests evident in much media coverage of elections has been a recurrent theme in the analysis of such coverage produced by Media Monitoring Africa’s (MMA). The problem with most election coverage, the MMA found, is not a lack of balance or of fairness, generally, but rather “follow-the-leader” stories. Some journalists appear so awed by the political big guns that they dog their every step and record their every utterance, no matter how inane and irrelevant to the voters. Wellington Radu, Research Manager at MMA put it so: “The problem is the coverage is almost exclusively centred on political parties, not people.”
Finally there are “war-of-words” stories that depict politicians in verbal combat: these mud-slinging matches can be funny, and can get readers emotionally invested in the stories and so involved in the real issues in play, but they often fail to adequately inform readers.
In the run-up to elections, these stories tend to dominate many front pages on an almost daily basis. Such is the lust for these stories that they are often clearly manufactured, with differing statements from different events, decontextualised and published opposed to each other as if the speakers were locked in debate.
Raymond Joseph, veteran trainer on best-practice election coverage, said, “Elections are about the people and their issues, not the agendas of politicians and political parties. If we remember this we will not get caught in the trap of reactive and boring he-said-she-said reportage. It is the one time that ordinary people have the attention of the politicians and good election reporting gives voice to these ordinary people. ”
The limited variety of election coverage is why the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism runs training on covering the elections in the field, in depth and on deadline. This enables journalists to find and uncover those stories that are of real interest not only to the chattering classes, but to the bulk of the media’s audience – and to the voting public.
having previously written and edited elections reports from 2006 up until 2012 for Media Monitoring Africa.
Sandra Roberts is the Writing Unit Manager of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ)