The 2021 General Election has been touted as “the media election” because aspirants are not expected to directly interface with the voters as has been the case.
They will reach the voters through the various media platforms. This is seen as one of the measures of mitigating the spread of coronavirus without compromising the constitutional requirement to hold an election as per the five-year cycle. Many have, as a result, described it as a “scientific election”!
In the last four months, therefore, different media organisations have positioned themselves to benefit from the expected windfall as candidates buy space to deliver their messages. However, if the NRM party primaries held nationwide only last week is anything to go by, the 2021 elections may be far from being a media or scientific election as it has been touted. It will likely be the old-fashioned election we have witnessed in Uganda with just a few modifications here and there.
The media is, therefore, expected to play the same old-fashioned role, the hype of “scientific” that we have been treated to by some pundits, media practitioners, politicians and a gullible public, notwithstanding. What then do we, the media consuming public, expect from the “fourth estate” in general, and journalists in particular?
Foremost, the media shall be expected to provide information on the various candidates running for different positions, the rules that will govern the election, the rights and responsibilities of the candidates and the citizens eligible to vote, the entire electoral process right from nomination through to declaration of results, and most importantly, how events unfold on the D-day.
Beyond the catalogue of information on the election process, the media is expected to provide interpretation and analysis of events and issues to help the citizens make sense of them, and therefore, be in a position to make informed choices.
The media is also expected to act as the bridge between the politicians and the voters by carrying political messages, posters, etc, on the one hand, and on the other giving voice to voters through live vox pops, asking the hard questions as well as being a watchdog against politicians that love to bend the rules of the game with impunity or promise to build bridges where there are no rivers!
While this seems simple and straightforward, many times the media fails to play this cardinal role because journalists who feed the content abandon the basic ethics of reporting.
They sometimes distort facts, over-emphasise certain aspects of a story to drive perception, craft headlines that misrepresent the content, and sometimes fabricate stories (opinion polls are a favourite), quotes, people and events.
It will, therefore, take meticulous planning and quality control for the media to fulfil public expectations. And yes, it will cost some money!
A few things journalists must keep at their finger-tips are: Avoid reporting anything without checking, and double checking the facts even if this information has been reported elsewhere – on social media or not-so-credible media outlets. This is because political campaign comes with a lot of lies, exaggerations and misinformation.
Journalists should not carry or repeat offensive speeches of politicians without giving opportunity to the ones being attacked in the same story. Thus, if one politician says his/her opponent is a thief, call the opponent and put the allegation before him and publish both statements.
However, some utterances by politicians belong to the gutter and should not be given currency by the media. Therefore, exercise utmost responsibility and judgment.
Then we come to the issue of fairness and balance. These are cardinal tenets of journalism and are particularly critical to election reporting. The content of the stories and the pattern of reporting need not just be fair and balanced, they need to be seen to or else sections of the audiences will simply switch off – sometimes forever. So competing candidates and parties need to be given a more or less equal chance in the sun.
Finally, should journalists take sides? Professionally, they shouldn’t. They can and do have sides, but this should never be seen in their stories and pattern of reporting.
Journalists’ task is to ask questions of everyone, not just someone and to share the answers with public, interrogate the issues and give background information. The public will judge which media house covers the election best and they will vote with their money and time.
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