GUIDANCE NOTE IB: A BRIEF FOR JOURNALISTS COVERING ELECTIONS
Fri, Aug 25, 2023
Journalism plays a critical role in ensuring that elections are properly democratic, as they provide a key channel of communication between parties, candidates and voters. A vote only has meaning if it is properly informed, and journalists have the responsibility of making sure that voters can mark their ballots on the basis of full and reliable information. At the same time, elections are times when political parties and other interest groups put all their resources into pushing their particular message, sometimes resorting to lies and manipulation. Election periods are times when journalists need to be particularly vigilant, not least because misinformation can sometimes lead to violence.
Ethics are not different during elections – the SA Press Code applies just like at other times. This document simply provides some additional thoughts on the media’s responsibility to all concerned during election times.
Advocacy vs. neutrality
First and foremost, a distinction should be made between reporting and commenting.
Certainly, a publication is at liberty to advocate a certain point of view. Translated into an election context, this means that publications are free to support a certain political party and to advocate its policies.
However, when it comes to reporting, the normal rules of journalism are valid, such as fairness, accuracy, etc. While there is indeed no such thing as objectivity, journalists should at all times be neutral in their reporting. They should not allow their convictions to overshadow their reporting.
This means that journalists should preferably not disclose their political preferences to anybody. Once a reporter has stated that she or he supports a specific political party, the journalist should not be surprised if the public reads her or his reportage through that specific lens. Balanced reporting, or the perception thereof, flies out the window. Perceptions are, for many people, realities.
The media should be fair in their coverage of political parties. But what does this mean?
In this context “fairness” does not, and in fact cannot, mean “equal” – it would be foolish to suggest that a publication gives as much space to the smallest party as to the biggest one.
Instead, “fairness” means “proportional”. This inter alia implies that:
all parties should be given a voice; and
the smaller parties cannot expect the media to give them the same amount of coverage as the ruling party and its main opponents.
Right of reply
As with any reporting, those who are the subject of critical reportage must be given a reasonable opportunity to reply to allegations. However, a distinction should be made between direct allegations of fact and general criticism, such as of a governing party’s record. Robust debate is a mark of a healthy democracy, and not every piece of electioneering needs a response.
Making use of anonymous sources is even more dangerous during election times. Such sources do not have to be accountable for what they say – and they may easily have an agenda to mislead.
Leaks should be treated with great care. Journalists should always ask who benefits from a particular piece of information. Though the story may nevertheless be important enough to report, it is important to know and reflect on how it benefits a particular side. Of course, journalists should check and recheck any information passed to them.
Media releases should be viewed with healthy suspicion. Of course, the media should report the gist of such releases, but should not be fooled into believing that everything in those documents are true and presented in proper context.
Bribes and favours
The media enter into a dangerous zone at election times – which is when politicians may offer favours of various kinds in return for favourable coverage, from direct bribes to promises of jobs, special access and many others. Journalists cannot afford to succumb to those temptations and compromise their integrity or independence.
Journalists need to inform themselves fully on the election process, rules and legal framework.
Transparency and accountability
Members of the PCSA should publish their policies and plans for election coverage. Extra efforts should be made to ensure audiences are informed about channels for complaints, both internally and with the PCSA. Members and the PCSA should deal with any complaints as quickly as possible, and errors should be corrected swiftly and readily.
When reporting on opinion polls, the media should provide sufficient technical and contextual information for audiences to judge the poll’s reliability. This includes the identity of the commissioning body; the identity of the polling organisation and its expertise; the purpose of the poll and the nature of the questions or issues explored; the sample size; the geographic coverage and demographic profile of those who were polled; the methods used and the margin of error.
A range of documents are available to guide journalists:
The guidance note was published in February 2019, and revised by the Press Council of South Africa in May 2023.