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Media's election coverage confusing and lacks quality - MMA

As the South African general elections draw near, the media has stepped up its coverage. The Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), which monitors media content, has however expressed concern about the lack of quality of election stories that it feels confuse audiences.

After its April 8 monitoring of Business Day, Daily Sun, e.tv primetime news, SABC3 primetime news, Sowetan, The Citizen and The Star, the MMA said last week that most of their election reports were one-sided, confusing, uncontextualised, and failed to educate audiences.

“I think the issue is more about quality,” MMA research manager Sandra Roberts told Bizcommunity.com on Sunday 12 April. “The quality of the stories was insufficient to explain the situation fully to the audience. For the Sapa one, I think the headline given by The Citizen [“Race moves voters”] was a poor choice.”

Roberts called on the media to produce stories that inform voters about issues and party manifestoes. She explained: “Have some stories that inform voters about what voting entails, why everyone's vote counts. The fact that the majority party is strong doesn't mean that your vote doesn't count (whether you support the majority party or otherwise).

“There has been some coverage about vote buying, in the form of food and other supplies to desperate people. That was good, and there was some follow-up, but what about allegations of intimidation of both voters and party candidates? If Cope's allegations of bribery and intimidation by ANC are true, this would make a good story, and would fulfil media's role as a watchdog. If the allegations are false, that is also of interest to readers.”

Roberts attributed the problem to lack of skills, general knowledge and lack of editorial commitments to elections. She said: “I have yet to see any story explaining why we have by-elections or what happens when you vote (that you make two crosses) or how the president is elected. These are important things to write about and educate voters.

“I think there may be an idea that everyone knows about voting and that media are unlikely to influence the election results. And it is arguable that media should want to influence the election results.

“However, media is one of the only mediums of communication between parties and voters, and it is often too easy on politicians, avoiding the difficult questions and allowing parties the space for campaigning, for which they would otherwise have to pay.”

Furthermore, the MMA said that it has noticed such trends in the previous election coverage, where the pattern was also very much a case of covering prominent people more than issues of interest to the voters.

“We saw it again this election with a large portion of the coverage going to Jacob Zuma and the NPA case. While this is interesting, the unfinished nature of the situation means that it is unlikely to sway voters. In fact, it may rather encourage people not to vote.”

Several attempts to get comment from ‘guilty' news managers were unsuccessful because of the Easter holidays.

However, a news writer who spoke on condition of anonymity said: “I understand the MMA's concern, but it is not that because we don't have skills. Editors put us under tremendous pressure and sometimes we don't have time to get comment from the other side.

“Besides, getting comment from politicians proves difficult than anyone can imagine. They keep you waiting and sending you from pillar to post, while your deadline is getting near.”

About Issa Sikiti da Silva

Issa Sikiti da Silva is a winner of the 2010 SADC Media Awards (print category). He freelances for various media outlets, local and foreign, and has travelled extensively across Africa. His work has been published both in French and English. He used to contribute to Bizcommunity.com as a senior news writer.

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