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Spare a thought for reporters who must brave the elections and its aftermath

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Glenda Daniels is associate professor of media studies, Wits University and is Sanef’s Gauteng convenor. These views are her own.

Journalists love election time and thrive on all the excitement, but it has its dangerous downsides too.

When you come from a media background, you know how excited journalists get about elections. I was one of the junior boots on the ground during the first democratic elections, and I remember the thrill of it so well.

But I also remember the fears about violence, given that the years before, from 1990 until then, consisted of endless coverage of the apartheid state’s violence and funerals.

Despite the long, snaking queues and quite a few other glitches on 29 May, and not to underplay the awful frustrations for some voters, one of the changes for the better over the past three decades is that the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) appears to have grown only stronger.

It guards its independence even more fiercely in dealing with South Africa’s complexities and myriad crises. This includes how it respects and engages with the media. It is a joy to watch.

South Africans and a largely independent media are fortunate to have a solid IEC that works so well with journalists. In particular, in the lead-up to elections and during the counting of votes, chief electoral officer Sy Mamabolo consistently acknowledged the role and contribution of the media to get accurate information out to the public. He noted the “pace and intensity” of fake news and how this could derail our democracy.

The work-related questions for journalists today remain the same as in 1994, namely where you will be stationed, whether you will be alone or with a camera person or a driver, whether you should “chase the fire” (where the action is), whether there will be violence and so on.

That’s the nervous tension. Journalists really are the boots on the ground, bringing live coverage from wherever they are.

More often than not, politicians are not happy with journalists. Just a few days before election day, the President of the country, Cyril Ramaphosa, used his platform to promote what good the ANC has done when he was supposed to be telling the nation about South Africa’s preparedness for the elections. This abuse of his office was questioned in the media and it will play out in the electoral court.

Election time questions

At IEC briefings, journalists can ask basic or complicated and even repetitive or irritating questions. The day before the 2024 election, journalists asked about the transportation of ballot boxes and spoiled ballots as they had already spotted problems with special votes. That’s what they are supposed to do.

They asked about whether they could shoot pictures and footage at the voting stations and were told that they could, but not in the polling booths, jeopardising voters’ privacy. They asked about the so-called indelible ink as a story had done the rounds in previous elections that people could “Jik” out their thumb markings.

They were assured that people could not vote twice as everyone had to vote where they were registered, except for the more than 300,000 who had applied to vote abroad because they were out of the country.

Journalists asked about visible security and concerns about disruptions. The IEC explained everything in detail with patience, and responded to all questions from all media, knowing full well that these answers served the public. It was impressive.

Number crunching and analysis

By the time you read this, the results should have been announced and the election declared to have been free and fair. Now the number crunching and analysis to identify trends will start.

There’s a self-deprecating joke in the newsroom: there are two types of people in the world – those who can do maths and journalists. This is a falsity because, even outside election times, journalists actually love numbers as much as they love words.

The statistics are always what the media look for: how many people died, how many people voted, how many people were at the rally, how many didn’t register to vote. It’s always about making sense of the numbers. The numbers are what you lead with, and therefore they form the important intro. Now there are stats galore and the credibility of prognosticators are on the line.

Which pollsters predicted what and who were close? Who was way out and by what margin? Did the by-elections over the past two years give an accurate indication of the outcomes of these elections?

What numbers did the smaller parties get, for example, Rise Mzansi, the new kid on the block? It didn’t seem to feature in the polls, but the intelligentsia were saying they would vote for it. And what about the other new party, uMhonto Wesizwe, making quite a showing?

Then there will be calculations about who will make it to Parliament and who is out for the count, for good. Cope, the PAC? And the official opposition, the DA – is it up or down or stagnant? The big question for everyone will be whether the ANC even reaches  50% and who its coalition partners will be.

Meanwhile, voter turnout in this general election looks good, which brings its own questions about why it was different this time round from, say, 2019.

Violence and abuse

Election time is exciting for journalists, but there is a downside. Beforehand, the media – through the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) – tried to get the big tech companies to agree to a direct line, if you like, to take down the online abuse of journalists, speedily.

Threats of rape and murder, coupled with fake news and fake pictures, especially of female journalists, abound on social media when politicians don’t like what you write. The big techs gave a half-hearted undertaking that they would. Time will tell.

Of course, politicians are not supposed to like you as a journalist; if they do, you’re doing something wrong.

A week before the election, Reuters Institute for Journalism researcher Prof Julie Posetti, with Prof Julie Reid from Unisa, released their big data case study of Daily Maverick female journalists’ abuse. This serves as a reminder of how journalists at the top of the game, such as Ferial Haffajee, Pauli van Wyk and Rebecca Davis, among others, have been vilified over the past few years. It’s almost unbearably painful to read.

Social media didn’t exist when I was a young journalist in the early 1990s. We had pagers, not cellphones. We’d get paged and we’d phone in (from a landline “tickey box”) to be told about a press conference, or where the fire was. These days, so much happens via WhatsApp groups or X (the latter of which has much opinion and unverified news). They’re making life both easier and harder.

At the Kingsmead College Book Fair in Rosebank on 25 May, the audience was held spellbound by social media lawyer Emma Sadler, who talked about the downfalls of sharing messages on social media and how people are getting into trouble.

Journalists know this, much more than members of the public: if you saw it and shared it on social media, and it’s disinformation or racism or lewd stuff, you are liable too. Indeed, if you are the administrator of the group and you opened the message, read it and did nothing, you could be fined – heftily.

During election time, groups on social media proliferate and messages are sent out in droves. Spreading fake news is a crime. The intention sometimes is not the deliberate, malicious spreading of false information (about the IEC, political parties or journalists, for example), but often that’s exactly what it is.

As much as some people don’t realise that stupid jokes and stereotyping are racist and pass on such nonsense, they are perpetuating past norms and values that are prejudicial. The only participation in this should be to call it out.

It is 30 years since our first democratic polls, and though some things haven’t really changed, others are massively different. For example, there are more political parties than ever before challenging the ruling party, and the haters on social media deploying fake news weren’t even thoughts in our heads in 1994. DM

Glenda Daniels is associate professor and head of the Media Studies Department at Wits University. She is the secretary-general of Sanef. These are her own views.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

 

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