Elections are coming and some say they may be sooner than we anticipate.  We say hooray!  We love elections at MMA.  There is a certain inexplicable joy at the prospect of monitoring a whole lot of media, analysing each news item, tracking the big stories and the little ones too, considering issues of fairness and bias, party coverage and gender equality.  Maybe it is just the thrill of participating in building South Africa’s democracy, I’m not sure, but I do know MMA was started with the purpose of monitoring media’s coverage of the elections and we have monitored all of South Africa’s democratic elections since then and it jingles our bells.

We will be doing loads around elections including our unique Media Rating’s so you can see which media is reporting better.  We will also together with SAfm be hosting a series of radio conferences focused on issues relating to media coverage of the elections.  We are having the first of these on Sunday 24 January so be sure to listen in to experts on Media@Safm from 10:00am.

But just before we get enraptured by the process and reporting

We ask that media adopt an agenda for reporting elections.  Far too often the reporting is amazingly similar across mediums, from tabloids to broadsheets and small commercial media to the public broadcaster. (Click here for our 2004 elections report)  One of the key findings is that media largely tend to allow the news agenda to be dictated by politicians and political parties.

Sure this will be the case for big news stories, but do we really all need to know where and when each party speaks at a rally?  We all know the politicians will be going out to campaign.  What we need to know as voters and citizens, is what parties stand for, what their policies are who is driving them and whether they will be able to implement them.

We are suggesting media adopt their own agenda of issues that they will focus on in an election period.  Thus it would seem only logical for the Business Day to focus on the economic policies of the various parties as one key element.  Other media, for example a community radio station may seek the input of its listeners for the most vital issues in their community then when parties and politicians come to speak to them they have a focus for questions to ask them.  We are not saying be biased but we are saying adopt a focus, make it clear to your audiences and then allow that to assist in determining your news agenda.

Finally then as a key element to making coverage interesting, we ask that the, “So What” and the “How” questions.

We all know that politicians, irrespective of their party will tell us that they will reduce crime, fight poverty, HIV and improve education etc.  Perhaps only the Big Racist Idiot Pig-Dog Paedophile party will say something else but most parties will tell us they are going to solve or at least have a significant positive impact on the big issues.

So much of the coverage in an election period is focused on politicians speaking at rallies saying they will address the big issues, blah blah blah, it just isn’t news.  Maybe if the politicians were not out campaigning it would be worth covering but campaign coverage is generally just boring and uninformative.  Of course as is commonly the case in South Africa whenever there are media and journalist who are dull and boring and miss the plot there are those who produce amazing things and interrogate parties and policies and politicians.  An article published in The Star by Christelle Terreblanche about the ANC’s policy is a wonderful example where it wasn’t just a story because the ANC launched its election manifesto but it interrogated particular parts of it.  Sadly I have no link as you have to be a subscriber to get access to it on the iol site.

So next time we hear a politician say that her/his party will reduce crime, ask, So what?  Is this really any different to any other party?  Then ask, How will the party reduce crime/alleviate poverty etc?  A story where a party policy is not clear or has no answers, or where a politicians is unable to answer how they will address some of our biggest challenges is far more interesting to me than a story of a politician speaking at a rally.
The elections, these in particular with the political fireworks are not only fundamental to our democracy but are exciting too, lets hope more media will be able to bring us that excitement in a diverse, balanced, accurate and fair manner.