Media integrity in elections

They say that you should never pick a fight with a person who buys ink by the barrel and I do not intend to. However, the reality is that the media is an indispensable aspect of a clean and integrity based election. So this week, as we approach the general election, I will spot the light on the media, especially the print media, because as citizens we must be conscious of the fact that media are not unbiased but they are critical for the information that we receive. This means that we should always approach media stories with a critical and jaundiced eye. We ought not to view the media through rose coloured glasses.

According to the Electoral Knowledge Network (ACE), one of the preconditions of electoral integrity is the existence of media which is free and fair. In order to undertake their business whilst contributing to integrity, the media must be able to publish their reports without intimidation and victimization. In essence ACE urges governments to ensure that the media enjoy:

– Freedom: This would translate to the ability of the media to monitor and report on election events without restriction or censorship.

Protection from intimidation and violence.

– Freedom of movement: Journalists must be able to travel freely throughout the country in order to follow candidates’ national campaigns and check how election administration is operating throughout the country.

– Access: Journalists must have access to election officers, electoral sites, candidates and voters. They must have access to government information in order to investigate and ensure that their work is accurate.

Equal treatment: The media should be treated equally, whether they are privately owned or government-controlled, and without reference to whatever political inclination they may reflect.

We already know that television news in Commonwealth Caribbean jurisdictions favour the governing party. Enough said about that! Even those of us who read newspapers infrequently would agree that media bias is unquestionable. It is easy to spot sympathies, unfavourable coverage and the political agenda and partisan nature of media houses.

The OAS in its final press release on the 2015 general elections in Guyana, noted the concern of the Media Monitoring Unit (MMU), located within the Guyana Elections Commission ( GECOM), that there was disparity in coverage of the political parties.

Now the MMU which was set up to engage in daily monitoring of Guyana’s mainstream print and broadcast media to ensure that they conformed to established best practices normally associated with professional journalism, is itself a good practice, and the unit has engaged in naming and shaming. Following the 2015 elections, the unit released its report which criticized three newspapers and a programme aired on CNS TV for breaching the Media Code of Conduct (MCC). But the Carter Center which monitored the 2015 elections in Guyana, noted that given the fact that the unit lacked the power to sanction media houses for breaching journalist codes, it was impossible to control the bias of the media during the elections. The center concluded that a number of media entities did not only appear partisan in their election coverage but the tone of some of their coverage was sensationalist and aimed at reaffirming the narrative of a particular party. In a nutshell the perception was that the media lacked neutrality and was therefore biased.

Observation missions throughout the Caribbean routinely question the professionalism and preparedness of the media given their coverage of election related activities, especially that of parties and candidates. In that vein, the report of the Commonwealth Observer Mission to the 2015 elections in St Vincent and the Grenadines noted the absence of a code of ethics governing media behaviour in elections and concluded that the media seemed unaware of their role as a “significant governance actor that is proactive and resolute in holding political stakeholders to account and assisting to enable a vibrant and transparent democracy”.

One of the concerns raised by observer missions in relation to the media is the lack of balance in the coverage of newsworthy events. The Commonwealth Observer Mission to Dominica in 2014, in its 2015 report, therefore pointed to what it viewed as the appearance of bias and lack of fairness in coverage.  The report also expressed concern about the apparent established relationships between the media and certain (unnamed) political parties. This has serious implications for the integrity of elections and therefore the outcome of elections.

Most telling was the view that “few media practitioners who responded to the invitation to brief observers came prepared for a story to write from observers”. And that is part of the problem of media regionally. Not only do they rarely engage in investigative reporting, but few stories are insightful and interesting. It appears that the media in several Caribbean jurisdictions are primarily concerned with human interest, and community based events which generally merely recount what others have said.  Yes, we know that the media need to be accurate and unbiased, that media must also focus on localized human interest stories, but the failure to delve into national issues and hold government to account in a meaningful way is disconcerting.

So good elections do not only demand transparency, professionalism by the EMB and a code of conduct for political parties, citizens and candidates, but they also require a code of conduct for the media, which really ought to extend beyond the election period.

Of course we know that media response is a condition of not only their structural bias but also their partisan bias. The structural bias is produced by journalistic news values, work routines, organizational resources, and dependency on other institutions. Where newspapers are successful they can recruit necessary technology and expertise and this ability will have consequences for news coverage. Bearing in mind that newspapers must also be guided by maximizing market appeal, sometimes, even successful newspapers, sacrifice the above in the interest of market forces. Secondly, journalists have their own partisan biases which can conflict with newspapers that promote integrity and these ultimately can have a decided impact on the fairness of election coverage.

So what should we look for from the media in terms of coverage for the upcoming general elections? Not only do they have rights, but like everything else they also have responsibility. As citizens we need to look hard and critically at every newspaper article during the election period and determine whether or not these articles are defined by the following:

1.    Even handedness – that is to say, are partisan opponents treated fairly.

2.    Fair coverage: What is the space given to the coverage of political parties and candidates?What is the proportion of newspaper coverage given to political parties and candidates? Are you seeing only one side of the story?

3.    Incumbency bias: Do incumbent candidates receive greater attention than newcomers?

4.    Gender Balance: Are women and men evenly covered? Is coverage of the other gender/sex weak or limited? Which gender tends to be covered? One disturbing tendency in some parts of the world, is the negative portrayal of women. While in the Commonwealth Caribbean, media representations of women in politics have not generally been blatantly hostile, demeaning or highly sexualized, we have experienced negative reporting on women, not extended in the same vein and degree of intensity to their male counterparts. So the media here is far more sensitive than elsewhere. In Sweden for example, candidates of Feministiskt Initiativ (FI), an all-woman political party, were routinely subjected to harsh and disparaging language. Often labelled as Nazis or Stalinists, ugly, angry, and unattractive, and ironically, sexualizing them as smiling bimbos with good looks but no brains. In speaking to the sexualization of women’s bodies, we should ask, what does a female candidate’s clothing for instance, her shoes, her hairstyle have to do with her politics and her seriousness?

Such a focus only tends to undermine the seriousness of women as politicians and their competence as political agents. Small wonder many female politicians have opted for the pants suit. And that does not insulate them from overt criticism, for they are then criticised for not being sufficiently soft and feminine.  So women are truly doubly damned.

It is noted that satirical pictures published in some leading newspapers in Sweden portrayed the women from FI as crazy hens running around directionless, and as half-naked, cut-out dolls with hairy legs, sagging breasts, ugly shoes and varicose veins. Portia Simpson Miller of Jamaica may have escaped some of the worse of these descriptions but she too was often portrayed as ignorant, brainless and besotted with herself.  One particularly, offensive satirical picture portrayed her as an empty barrel.

For this election season, may the media – especially print media – prove George Bernard Shaw wrong when he said “newspapers are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization”.

Source: (Cynthia Barrow Giles is senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill)

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