Survival tips for reporters covering elections
Covering elections, even in Western society, presents many problems. In fledgling multi-party nations, it will be like walking in a minefield. One false step and your reputation - and your media organisation's - could be damaged. Here are some of the ways you can survive:
Report facts not fantasy
Report events exactly as they happen - and not as you would like them to happen. This means that you must be impartial in every way:
- Give equal prominence to all the major candidates. This means attending an equal number of candidate's meetings.
- Be careful not to colour your reports with inflammatory language.
- Report what candidates say and not what interested parties say candidates said.
- Be careful not to be seen to be taking sides in political arguments.
- Do not (in any circumstances whatsoever) accept any inducement from a candidate or his/her supporters. Do not even take a ride in a politician's car.
- Do not promise any politician (or anyone else for that matter) that a report or story will appear in the paper.
- Report what you see without exaggeration.
- Do not use extravagant language in describing crowd scenes.
- Exercise fair play. If a candidate makes an accusation against his opponent, ask that opponent for a comment.
You should be listening for:
These are usually part of the party manifesto or platform: lofty pledges to initiate irrigation schemes, build highways, lower taxes waive education fees. Or they could be titbits for village consumption: "Vote for me and I will give you 10 new cattle dips". "Vote for me and no child in the district will go barefoot". "Vote for me and your stomachs will be full of food forever". So you've got to be alert. You could get a national story or one for the provincial round up briefs.
Hecklers, people who like to disrupt meetings with their interjections, can provoke violence or laughter in equal measure. Be alert for humorous, rapid-fire exchanges. You may get a good verbatim quote.
Be prepared for a sudden departure from the prepared speech, particularly contradictory statements or fundamental shifts in platform policy. Do not rely on the printed text alone. You will need acute powers of observation. You will need to gauge the mood of the meeting. Is it tense, light-hearted? Look around and observe the placards, the expressions on people's faces. Are there trouble-makers?
4: The crowd:
How big is the audience? To estimate accurately the size of a crowd is an important skill. But it is wise to quote a variety of sources: yours, the police, the organisers.
In a volatile political situation, anything can happen. Certain signs will prepare you. These include the number of infiltrators from the opposition camp. Are they armed? Listen to what people in the crowd are saying. And observe the security presence. Are they armed with shields, batons, machine guns and teargas? Are they expecting trouble? Do they appear nervous? Do not jump to conclusions about how trouble has started if a sudden commotion takes place. Talk to people, you may have missed something or an act of provocation.
If you carry out all the points raised in this rather long list, you will have performed a valuable service for your media organisation. You will be in on the ground floor as history is made. And as a man once said: " History is past politics, and politics is present history". Be part of it.
Edited version of a piece written by John Lawrence
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 the Commonwealth Secretariat and released under Creative Commons