The role of the media during elections
The media is in the news business but it is not just in business. Journalists, broadcasters and publishers have a responsibility towards the society as a whole. That means that journalists operate on the edges of the market and democracy.
According to the Federazione Nazionale Della Stampa in Italy: "The function of the press is not to give support to this or that economic or political potentate, but to unravel the everyday, complex behaviour of society and powerful bodies for the benefit of its readers. Newspapers and journalism were originally intended to be, and must continue to be, useful instruments in the general interest rather than mouthpieces of individual, particular interests".
It is a timely reminder that politicians must keep their hands out of the affairs of journalists. But it also means that journalists cannot be prevented by their publishers from carrying out their professional responsibilities.
In order to really empower journalists in this fundamental social function, some media have established editorial statutes that tend to guarantee independence from all kinds of pressure.
In Germany, journalists employed on Stern magazine have a detailed agreed statute covering editorial freedoms.
Article 1 of the statute states that Stern is a political magazine, but is independent of any of the political parties in Germany, of business corporations, or any other interest groups.
The Article says Stern seeks to inform and entertain its readers and expects its editorial staff to believe in a free, democratic system and to subscribe to progressive liberal principles.
Journalists or employees of Stern cannot be forced to carry out any task, to write anything or to take responsibility for anything against their convictions. They may not suffer any consequences from a refusal.
The interests of editorial workers at Stern are represented by an advisory board, consisting of seven editorial staff members, elected annually by secret ballot. On a petition of 30 editorial staff members, the advisory board must be newly elected.
The editor-in-chief of Stern is appointed by the publisher. The editor-in-chief requires the full confidence of the editorial staff: therefore, the publisher discusses the appointment with the advisory board.
The publisher will not appoint or dismiss an editor-in-chief if the advisory board is opposed to such a move with a two-thirds' majority.
Staff decisions within the editorial department are taken by the editor-in-chief.
Staff changes at the level of deputy editor-in-chief, department head and political journalist cannot be made against the opposition of two-thirds of the advisory board.
The advisory board must give reasons for its position consistent with the principles contained in Article 1 of the statute.
These brief examples here show that where there is recognition of the problems of pressure practical action can be taken to reinforce professionalism and independence in media.
We should strive for independence at all times, but it must exist, above all, during the critical period for democracy when a nation or a community is electing to office those charged with defending their liberties and protecting their interests.
- How can news media improve coverage to ensure that news reports do not appear to slavishly follow the bias that may appear in editorial columns?
- What structures for internal discussion and debate should be established to review the election reporting process as it unfolds to correct any problems of apparent bias that may emerge?
- Is there a process of debate and dialogue within a newsroom which can reduce or eliminate personal prejudice?
Written by Jean Paul Marthoz
This piece is an edited version of a chapter from the Election Reporting Handbook which was produced in May 2003 by the IFJ, the International Federation of Journalists. The handbook was produced with the support of the European Commission and the Danish Foreign Ministry (DANIDA).
Image courtesy of Demosh and released under Creative Commons