Planning tips for effective election coverage

A model for election coverage

<a href="" target="_new">Slide by David Brewer</a> released via <a href="" target="_blank">Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0</a>.
Slide by David Brewer released via Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Planning is essential for effective election coverage. The model below can be used as a checklist by editors or election coverage teams. It gives also some guidance on special editorial approaches to the campaign. Be careful, however, to adapt this model to local realities. Do not accept the argument that poorly funded media do not have the means to follow those rules. Journalism on a budget can be priceless.

Election planning checklist

1: Details

Check with the electoral commission regarding all the details of the coming poll: registration date, start and closing day of the campaign period, election day specifics (how the polling will be organized, timetable for election returns, etc).

2: Rules

Study the election rules: voting system, electoral laws, poll watching, laws governing international observation delegations, use of public opinion surveys, political advertising regulations, access to state media, electoral expenses limitations, etc).

3: Guidelines

Join other media, unions of journalists, publishers’ and broadcasters’ associations to agree guidelines, a code of conduct and a charter to be submitted to all political parties, committing them to respect journalists and protect them against harassment by party supporters.

Consider setting up an election media monitoring group comprised of respected, non-partisan figures charged with protecting the press from aggression and investigating any such incidents.

4: Audience awareness

Explain to your readers your reporting rules, how you are going to cover the campaign and why.

5: Budget

Budget the election reporting: an election campaign is usually good business for the media, but costs can run away with you.

You will need extra phone lines, faxes, additional cars and drivers, more overtime.

Plan carefully and allocate resources wisely. Underestimating your budget will get you into trouble. Keep a sensible proportion of your budget unallocated for contingencies.

6: Roles and responsibilities

Choose your team. Election coverage is the political desk’s golden hour but should not be its exclusive preserve.

All departments can be asked to perform duties according to their skills. Specialised writers will be commissioned to analyze issues on their beat (economics, health, foreign affairs, economics, labour, education), to compare competing political programmes, to scrutinise speeches and position papers, to track inconsistencies and expose propaganda.

The foreign desk, for instance, might be assigned to stories related to international observer teams, foreign press coverage, role of international organisations in the campaign, etc.

Some media organisations set up an election desk for the last weeks of the campaign. This option should be studied carefully especially in small newspapers.

The election campaign should not compromise reporting of other news.

7: Review procedure

Appoint an editorial panel: it will be charged with reviewing delicate questions that may arise as the campaign develops. It should include the editor-in-chief, the relevant department head, and a few distinguished commentators or reporters.

8: Operational issues

Plan technical and operational arrangements: pin down the advertising department (some pages should be considered ad-free during the campaign, precise guidelines should be given to acceptance and placement of political advertising), the production manager (s/he must provide for later deadlines on election day and for additional pages), and the distribution manager.

9: Staffing

Recruit additional personnel: young journalists to handle the information flow on election day, phone and fax operators, secretaries, drivers, etc.

10: Contacts list

Contact resource persons: they will be of much help to give expert advice during the election campaign and as soon as the results are public.

Election pundits, political scientists, public opinion analysts, should be on standby and attached to your particular media.

Appointments should be arranged in advance with political party leaders for election-night comments on results.

But do not overwhelm your readers with excessive punditry. Ordinary citizens should have their say too.

11: Media assets

Check your photo files: you should have as many pictures of candidates as possible stored in your photo library.

12: Backup systems

Plan for emergencies: what do you do if something breaks down on your side (your computer falls dead, your local journalist cannot contact you, one of your reporters is arrested or wounded, etc) and on the side of the government (failure in the collation of results, charges of irregularities, etc).

Planning is all-important, but never forget that your first responsibility is to the readers, the viewers and listeners.

13: Audience empowerment

Citizen’s groups which are formed to help voters use the power which elections put at their disposal are very useful. Take, for example, this advice given by Project Vote Smart in the US to American voters:

  1. Remember who is in charge. In our democracy the citizen is the boss. Elected officials are temporary hired help.
  2. View the election campaign as the politician’s job application.
  3. Ask yourself if the candidates are giving you, the employer, the information needed to decide who is best for the job.

14: Clarity of content

Civic education: media must carefully and repeatedly explain the principles and techniques of voting and what the election will lead to (a new parliament, separation of powers, transparency, etc).

Media should introduce an open line to readers so they might ask questions on specific points of the campaign and air their views.

Run more interviews with voters not just “vox-pop” and quick quotes gathered in the street, but meaningful probing of how families are surviving in an economic crisis or how they deeply feel about education opportunities for their children.

15: Plans for polls

Public opinion polling: unprofessional polls are bad news, for voters and for media.

Never commission surveys that do not stick to the highest standards and never print them without fully explaining the conditions and the limits of the survey.

Expose any fraud in a political party or newspaper survey. Never forget that polls will never replace old-style political reporting.

16: Fact files

Start well ahead of election day: prepare profiles of major candidates, close-ups on most electoral districts (economic base, population profile, major problems, party dominance).

17: Backgrounders

Cover the issues: Pile up documentation on campaign issues (official figures, the state of the debate, major players and lobbies, etc.).

Cover those issues independently from party positions, report on issues that are neglected by political parties.

Too often issues are presented as just a conflict between opposing sides and not as objects of serious debate.

Always ask: What’s missing in the news today? Read everything, remember what the candidates said (and did) over a period of years not just days.

Do not confuse lobbying by interest groups or media-generated excitement with a grass-roots political movement.

Do not be afraid of repeating explanatory studies of difficult issues.

The “We’ve already done it” or “It does not interest anybody” cynicism should never be welcome in a newsroom. At election time is should be banned.

18: Style

Improve your sub-editors’ team: make stories and issues accessible to readers, de-code all political jargon, track down and annihilate all long words that render already difficult concepts totally incomprehensible.

19: Priorities

Beware of “pack” journalism: shy away from the tendency to follow candidates like a pack of wolves which leads to concentrate on the same events and interpret them in the same way.

This happens particularly when a candidate is seen as rising in the polls: when a candidate’s support increases sharply the coverage of his candidacy becomes more favourable.

20: Stakeholders

Keep in Touch with who is behind a party or a candidate: examine possible conflicts of interest. Look at a candidate’s record or promises and commitments: ask who has benefited or would benefit from a candidate’s proposals.

Follow the money: who is financing the campaign, what are the interests of those providing the money, and how will they benefit from the government (new legislation, regulatory power).

21: Variety

Use all forms of journalism: long reportage, analytical pieces, graphs, satire, sketches and cartoons, investigative journalism (who is behind a particular candidate, the role of special interests, etc), photojournalism, profiles, interviews, contradictory debates.

22: Propaganda

Open Space: Give politicians from different parties the possibility to write columns for your paper on a fair and rotating basis.

But stop this process at least two weeks before election day so as not to give undue advantage to one of the candidates and not to overwhelm your readers with party propaganda.

23: Stunts and tricks

Get acquainted with campaign tricks: Beware of stunts and cooked-up events designed just to grab headlines.

24: Overhype

Press releases: Do not just publish political parties’ press releases: check them, use them as a source for a more balanced story.

Do not run for “photo-opportunities”. Do not overhype controversy: a contrived rumour campaign can lead you far away from voters’ real interests.

25: Attribution

Be credible: Never forget that your long-term credibility is always at stake. Follow closely each candidate’s advertising campaign.

Some media have columns which scrutinise campaign promises and advertising techniques. Expose falsification and distortion wherever you find it.

Clearly identify and attribute any information coming from sources other than obtained from independent reporting.

26: Review process

After the election: review the way your team covered the campaign. Compare your performance with that of the competition.

27: Training

Train your staff in reporting a multiparty parliament or a coalition government. Follow up the candidates’ election campaign promises. Check their records against their commitments.

Keep an eye out for conflicts of interest: the type of legislation actively pushed by an MP can give you a tip on the identity of his financial backers.