Elections, where journalistic professionalism is tested


Image by DVIDSHUB released under Creative CommonsThe challenge of objectivity, impartiality and balance in journalism is faced daily by journalists, but there is no test of professionalism greater than that posed in the heat and pressure of a bitterly-fought political election.

The election is also a test of political commitment to democracy. It is a time the impulse to manipulate media and to control information is strongest among ruling parties and political leaders running for office.

The importance of informing the public debate

And what about voters? The election provides a further challenge to media because it brings into sharp focus the need of media to provide citizens with access to all the facts, opinions and ideas being canvassed in the campaign.

And journalists must also provide access to media so that citizen's voices can be heard above the babble of political debate.

In countries where media, press and broadcasting have been traditionally subject to monopoly control and undue political influence, particularly from the state, and sometimes from single-party government, adjusting to multi-party conditions is never easy. How do journalists cope with these pressures?

How can they enforce professional guidelines and rules which will help them to put all sides of an argument?

What laws and regulations should restrain political interest groups from exercising undue influence?

In countries where media, press and broadcasting have been traditionally subject to monopoly control and undue political influence, particularly from the state, and sometimes from single-party government, adjusting to multi-party conditions is never easy.

Keep Your Distance:

Journalists are citizens too and are entitled to their own political opinions, but they must be non-partisan in all their journalism, especially when reporting elections. You must be fair to all parties and candidates. Never take part in any election activity – speaking at party rallies or making financial donations. Never take gifts, cash or in kind. There will be a political price to pay. If in doubt, check with the editor.

See our piece on editorial independence during election coverage

Give voters a voice:

The most important people in an election are not the politicians - the party leaders or candidates. It is the people who vote. So give the voters a voice by providing information on the election process, testing the promises of people canvassing for votes and by posing relevant questions that focus on the needs of citizens and the community.

See our piece on confronting editorial bias in election coverage

Get Organised:

Journalists covering elections need to know what they are talking about. Prepare by acquiring the knowledge and skills needed to cover an election campaign in an informed manner. This includes knowing the background on the election process itself; details about the candidates and their manifestos, understanding the issues that are important for voters, and using credible sources who provide insight to make sense of it all.

See our piece on planning tips for effective election coverage

Respect minorities, avoid extremism:

Elections can bring out the worst in politicians (and journalists) – extreme opinions, extravagant promises and intemperate speech. Reporters and editors should be wary of violent rhetoric and offensive opinion, particularly about minorities and vulnerable groups. Keeping the peace is the job of the police, but journalists should not do anything that may incite intolerance or hatred.

See our piece on a media guide for spotting election irregularities

This piece was written by Aidan White and is an edited version of the introduction to the Election Reporting Handbook.

IFJ logoThis 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 by DVIDSHUB and released under Creative Commons

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