Key duties of the media when reporting election news

January 13, 2020 18:44
Supporters of Tsai Ing-Wen wave campaign flags during a rally last Friday on the eve of the island’s elections. The Taiwan contest kicked off an important election year in the world, prompting an observer to remind the media of its duties. Photo: AFP

This year, we will witness quite a number of important political elections in the world. The list includes Taiwan's presidential and legislative elections, which concluded last Saturday, Hong Kong's legislative council election in September and, of course, the US presidential contest in November.

And that reminds me of the recent ExcEl Awards for Excellence in Election Reporting in Southeast Asia presentation ceremony that took place in late November, during which an officiating guest pointed out in the keynote speech that when reporting on election news, the media must stick to four key duties.

The first duty is, of course, to report on the course of the election campaigns and forecast the results in a similar way to reporting sports news, using means such as charts and figures as well as analyzing the developmental trajectory of the campaigns, the head-to-head battles among contenders, and the preparations of the candidates, as well as conducting post-election reviews.

The problem is that, in recent years, the media has become increasingly obsessed with turning election news reporting into a kind of “infotainment”.

In order to make the “tournaments” appear more nail-biting, some media outlets have opted to report election news selectively.

Worse still, some news outlets even adopt the so-called “soccer fan mentality” when reporting election news, under which their news coverage would be heavily biased towards certain particular candidates whom they endorse in order to boost their odds of winning.

The second crucial duty for the press when it comes to reporting election news is to provide oversight.

Enforcing “media oversight” isn’t just confined to finding out whether there are election malpractices, it should also include monitoring the course of the election so as to guarantee its proper execution, and detecting loopholes in the entire election procedure.

And apart from providing oversight of the election process, there is now an additional and equally important focus for the media when reporting election news: fact-checking.

This includes fact-checking whether the candidates have cited unverified information or have simply lied directly.

In the broader sense, fact-checking by the media should encompass not only verifying manifestos and speeches of candidates, but also examine whether incumbent office holders who are seeking re-election have delivered on their election promises after they were voted into office last time.

The third duty is to set the policy agenda for elections, which is significant because the way election news is covered can often influence the decision of voters.

Unfortunately, in recent years, the media has appeared to be a lot more interested in digging up the personal lives of candidates or even smearing them rather than setting policy agendas for the election.

As a result, the style of today’s election news reporting has become increasingly tabloidized, under which voters would often be a lot more familiar with the scandals that derailed some candidates rather than the agenda of the winners post-election.

Lastly, the fourth duty to which election news reporting must stick is to foster the culture of democratic elections.

To put it more precisely, the essence of democracy lies not in the “majority principle”, which, to some extent, stands for a collective decision-making process, but rather, in certain crucial elements.

Such elements include whether there were sufficient discussions before a decision is made, whether the rights and demands of the minorities were respected, whether every stakeholder has been given the freedom to express their views and an equal opportunity offered to participate in the decision-making process, and whether rational thinking has given way to coercion, money, class and seniority-based hierarchy.

These are the crucial things that the media is duty bound to remind all voters.

Regrettably, as it turns out, the media today has overall failed to take the initiative and make the political discourse among the public more diversified.

Instead, many media outlets have fuelled polarization in society, rendering it more and more difficult to engage people in meaningful discussions and dialogue on policy issues.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 31

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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HKEJ contributor