Covering an election campaign

Ballot box picture by Anthony Karanja released under Creative Commons

Picture by Anthony Karanja, released under Creative Commons

Who said what and why

There are two main areas of coverage to consider when reporting an election campaign: what the politicians say, and the importance and significance of the issues they are talking about. The politicians are entitled to have their say, and the voters are entitled to hear them and understand what they are talking about. And it's the responsibility of the journalist to question and examine all that is said.

Ask the right questions

Remember, especially if you're a broadcaster, you need to ask tough questions on behalf of the audience.

"Don't be afraid to ask tough questions on behalf of your audience"

Ask yourself: what questions would the audience want to ask if they were doing the interview ?

The politicians will want to talk about what suits them. The journalist needs to take an independent view of what is important to the voters.

You need to decide what the big issues are and present them, setting out the basic facts while making clear what the different parties have to say about them.

The importance of planning

All journalists should report elections fairly, but broadcasters are bound, sometimes by law, to be impartial.

That means not giving one candidate or party preferential treatment over the others.

That requires careful planning. You need to decide which are the main parties and give them roughly equal coverage.

Logging contributions

You will need to keep a log or diary of which party or candidate is interviewed on what day. That way you won't find that by the end of the campaign you've interviewed one party leader 10 times and the other twice.

And don't forget the smaller parties and individual candidates. When deciding if they should be interviewed or reported, bear in mind;

1: How many candidates is a party putting up?

2: Have they had any success in elections before?

3: Is there any evidence, such as opinion polls, which suggests they have popular support?

Covering the issues

It's also important to plan coverage of election issues such as health, education, the economy and agriculture in advance, and space the issues out over the campaign. This applies to all journalists, not just broadcasters.

Election campaigns are unpredictable. The unexpected always happens. So don't let your planning get in the way of reacting to a big breaking election story.

Don't forget you're in the business of news.

The media's obligations

Some parts of the media, particularly newspapers, are sometimes freer to give their opinions. But they still have two obligations:

1: To tell the truth where facts are involved.

2: To make it clear what is a factual story and what is the journalist's or the newspaper's opinion.

Internet journalists have exactly the same obligation to be fair and honest as other parts of the media.

For news organisations their website can be of huge benefit in providing voters with a permanent and easily accessible source of election information: election rules, parties and candidates, facts and figures about all the issues.

Audience participation

The internet also gives the voters the chance to take part in the election debate on message boards, blogs and social network sites.

If you offer this kind of service, don't feel obliged to deliver an artificially balanced set of postings.

It's good to try to encourage a range of views, but let the voters decide on the balance of opinions.

Watch out, though, for attempts to hijack the debate on your site. Sometimes a party or group will try to take over by filling it with postings saying the same thing.

You can sometimes spot this because a lot of nearly identical messages appear close together. If this happens you may need to remove the posts.

It's OK to let candidates contribute, but they should make it clear they are standing for election themselves.

Ten tips for covering elections

To recap:

1: Be fair and be accurate.

2: Let the politicians speak but question them rigorously.

3: Decide what you think the big issues are and try to explain them.

4: Keep your broadcast coverage impartial.

5: Plan your interviews and keep a diary to make sure the parties get a fair amount of time.

6: If your newspaper is backing one side, keep the comment separate from the news.

7: Use your website to let the voters join in the debate.

8: Make full use of social networks to expand that debate.

9: Be ready to ditch your news coverage plans when the unexpected happens.

10: Remember elections are exciting and interesting - keep your coverage that way too.

Bob DoranBob Doran has worked in journalism since 1969. He edited the BBC's flagship radio news bulletin, the Radio 4 Six O'Clock News, then became editor of Newsbeat on BBC Radio One. Bob has also worked for BBC Television News and with the BBC News Interactive. He has experience organising the coverage of British and U.S. elections. He's been training journalists for 15 years for the BBC College of Journalism, the Thomson Foundation and others.

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