DISINFORMATION IN A TIME OF COVID-19 OP-ED
The media (just about) got election coverage right, but challenges remain
This week we focus on the role of our media in an election period, including some strengths and some weaknesses, in order to highlight how important the media is to free and fair elections.
Week 37: Free and fair elections and the media
Last week, at the IEC’s announcement of the final election results, President Cyril Ramaphosa deviated from his prepared remarks to say the following:
“I would also like to thank the media. The media were in many ways the heroes and heroines of this elections process. For they kept us informed of everything that was happening throughout the elections process. Sometimes the media never gets thanked for everything that they write, both wonderful and horrible about many of us. We never thank you and today I would like to thank you for the good, the bad and the ugly that you wrote about us. And what you also wrote about me. Through your efforts you were able to keep us all informed, television, radio, social media and print.”
The comments are important. To begin with, they are a direct acknowledgment of the importance of the news media to democracy and how a free media and democracy are intertwined.
In referring to the media reporting “the good, the bad and the ugly”, as well as “the wonderful and horrible” about the parties and even the president himself, Ramaphosa is also highlighting the importance of critique as an essential part of democracy.
Speaking at the National Press Institute before he became our first democratically elected president in February 1994, Nelson Mandela also made the link to a free media, democracy and the importance of critique.
He stressed the importance of a free media:
“Freedom of expression, of which press freedom is a crucial aspect, is among the core values of democracy that we have striven for. To realise and institutionalise these freedoms requires that, in the first instance, we have a government representative of and based on the will of all the people.”
And then the importance of critique:
“A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the Constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.
“It is only such a free press that can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizens. It is only such a free press that can be the vigilant watchdog of the public interest against the temptation on the part of those who wield it to abuse that power. It is only such a free press that can have the capacity to relentlessly expose excesses and corruption on the part of government, state officials and other institutions that hold power in society.
“I have often said that the media are a mirror through which we can see ourselves as others perceive us, warts, blemishes and all. The African National Congress has nothing to fear from criticism. I can promise you, we will not wilt under close scrutiny. It is our considered view that such criticism can only help us to grow, by calling attention to those of our actions and omissions which do not measure up to our people’s expectations and the democratic values to which we subscribe.”
It might seem obvious that the president should acknowledge these values, but in the post-truth world the importance of the person occupying the highest office in the land acknowledging and thanking the media for enabling people to be informed cannot be understated. It is a direct affirmation of the interdependence of our democratic institutions, and while the event at which Ramaphosa spoke was appropriately focused on the Electoral Commission, it was a powerful buttressing of our democracy to use the event to also highlight the role the media play in an elections period.
So how did our media perform? Media Monitoring Africa is the only organisation to have monitored media coverage of South Africa’s elections since 1994. We monitored the media coverage of last week’s local government elections (LGE21). Monitoring is still taking place and we will produce a report unpacking the issues in greater detail in the coming weeks.
For now, we will focus on two strong areas and two areas that need greater attention in terms of how the media cover elections. If you want to look at other criteria, spread across parties, you can look at the results on our dashboard here. You can look at which topics and parties were covered, by the media that were monitored, or by party.
One of the most essential elements of news media coverage in an election period is fairness. Do our media cover political parties fairly? The short answer is overwhelmingly, yes – 95.77% of all items monitored to date have been fair.
That is to say there was no clear evidence in our monitoring that a party or person was clearly favoured or disfavoured. This is an incredible achievement. Unlike so many other countries where the news media seem to forget their responsibilities to report in a fair, accurate and balanced manner, our news media go to considerable lengths to ensure they afford fair coverage to parties. There have been exceptions, as there were in the 2016 elections, and they really stood out. The SABC at that time, under Hlaudi Motsoeneng, clearly sought to positively portray the ANC and negatively represent the EFF and DA.
Of course, the media will and do get things wrong and some stories will end up clearly favouring or disfavouring a party or person. However, 4.3% of items being unfair is clearly not enough to demonstrate a pattern of bias that might threaten the free and fair nature of elections. Our news media are to be applauded in this regard. You can have a look at the variations by looking at the dashboard and selecting media and parties.
The second area is linked to fair coverage and speaks to the issue of equitable coverage. A look at the monitoring results shows that the ANC dominates media coverage, followed by the DA, EFF and IFP. The percentages broadly reflect how the parties performed in the elections.
To the extent that the media were able to cover the political parties in a fair and equitable manner, they again need to be commended. It’s important to talk about equitable coverage, as there have been complaints by various parties that they were marginalised and ignored by the media. When looking at this issue, we speak of equitable coverage, because with 325 parties it is plainly impractical and unfair to talk about equal coverage. The ANC dominates coverage because it is the party with the most power, with the largest number of seats and with the most people in municipalities. It is fair and reasonable that the ANC would dominate in terms of coverage, followed by the official opposition, the DA, and the EFF.
To the extent that party coverage is broadly in line with actual representation of power in government, it can be said to be equitable. The problem, of course, comes if you are a smaller party. The graph above shows that the top five parties account for 86% of all political party voices heard. So, if you are one of the other 321 parties, getting some coverage that can help expose your party to the public is a real challenge. It is a challenge that the media, with limited resources, struggles to overcome.
It is not a new challenge, but with the fracturing of our multi-party system, and coalitions on the cards, it is one that will need creative solutions. In Western Europe, for example, political parties make effective use of social media to help promote their candidates’ views and policies. Social media does offer immense possibilities for even the smallest parties to be able to have their voices heard. Of course, with the deluge of disinformation it carries its own risks. We imagine the solution will lie in a combination of these elements – and we need to ensure that everyone in South Africa has access to fast, cheap broadband so that access, itself increasingly acknowledged as a basic human right, is also equitable. It is a challenge we will be seeking to find some possible solutions to with the IEC and media partners.
Local government elections are meant to be about local issues, those that matter to communities. These issues will vary from place to place. In affluent areas they might be about demanding better pavements and faster response times to fault reporting; in under-resourced areas it might be about getting access to running water and sanitation.
Then there are the big issues: crime, gender-based violence, racism and xenophobia, safe spaces for children, libraries, playgrounds. These issues have a bearing and impact on local government. The top topics covered by the media, however, paint a very different picture. Party campaigning, party politics and party manifestos account for 56% of news stories. Stories about service delivery, gender-based violence, children, racism and xenophobia, land and climate change barely feature, with service delivery issues receiving roughly 5%.
These are the issues that affect the majority of citizens. While the reasons for the media covering party politics and campaigning do make sense, the ability of the public to make informed choices is limited by the marginalisation of key rights-based issues. We must add that some media organisations, like News24’s Out of Order Index, have clearly been making efforts to unpack service delivery.
The final area we want to look at is the media accessing female voices. Women make up 52% of South Africa’s population, but as can be seen here, only 16.49% of media sources. It is a record low and very disappointing.
Our monitoring of the national elections in 2019 found that women accounted for 19% of sources, which was low. Most media organisations subsequently, with the notable exception of key SABC public service channels like Ukhozi FM and Umhlobo wenene FM (which have routinely been below the South African average), carried an average of 23% female sources.
In many cases, the increase in women’s voices is attributable to senior women leaders being in the news over the elections period. Previously, Helen Zille, Patricia de Lille, Lynne Brown and others have had many news stories around them, helping to drive up the number of women’s voices. This hasn’t been the case in these elections.
While possibly understandable, it is not acceptable. It might be that some parties have fewer senior women leaders, but it is inexcusable for our established parties to have so few women’s voices being heard. Equally, our media need to make a substantially better effort to ensure even vaguely equitable coverage of women’s voices.
Over the next few weeks we will be highlighting these and other issues with our media through events and analyses. While they have their faults, the role of the news media remains critical.
As a reader and active member of the public you can help by continuing to stand up and report those who seek to exploit and heighten fears, who display no compassion. It won’t stop disinformation, but it may reduce its spread and cause less harm. It is critical that we all play our part in combating and mitigating these digital offences.
If you suspect that content on digital media could be disinformation, hate speech, harassment of journalists or incitement to violence, report it to Real411.
To make it even more simple, download the Real411 mobile app on Google Play Store or Apple App Store. The elections may be over, but the dark forces will continue to seek to cause harm, and Real411 will keep going. Keep an eye out for a more detailed analysis on the specific complaints and trends in the elections. DM
William Bird is director of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) and Nomshado Lubisi is communications manager at MMA, a partner in the 411 platform to counter disinformation.
Remember, if you come across content on social media that could potentially be disinformation, report it to Real411.
"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"