Tide Of Times Media Coverage Of Polls
Full-fledged local elections, just round the corner, automatically raise the question: Do voters have easy and adequate access, including forum for their expectations and disappointments other than casting their ballots only?
FM radio stations can serve the occasion most effectively. There are more than 100 daily newspapers spread in the districts, nearly two scores of them broadsheets apart from nearly another score published from Kathmandu Valley. But the actual scope of these papers is no match for the more than 400 radio stations that dot the media map of the districts in terms of frequency, updates and speedy dissemination of the latest information.
Local elections bear a far greater proximity between the candidates, party activists and voters in general. The potential for radio attracting gripping attention of listeners in local elections, especially from the time of candidates filing their nomination papers and campaigning for voters, is truly immense. Although radio is listened to proportionately more in rural areas than in town centres, it is equally listened to in both the areas during election time.
Nepal holds the distinction of being the only country in the whole of South Asia to allow FM stations to broadcast news. Others in the world’s most populous region representing a fifth of humanity witness the state monopolising radio news. Whether FM radio stations in Nepal will be able to inspire them to change the traditional tune for the better depends upon their desire and energy.
If the existing practice is anything to go by, prime time news bulletins—the soul radio news services—are produced by networks based in Kathmandu Valley for virtually all stations in all regions. Since these agencies go for the common denominator in accommodating the several hundred radio stations across the country, specific local content for individual stations more often than not gets missing.
The major networks monopolise the bulletins broadcast during hours that draw the largest listenership against the expectations of specific local character that individual stations could otherwise have created. Local papers could, therefore, accord a comprehensive coverage, blow-by-blow reports—something the national media cannot. If the past is any indication, the national media focus disproportionately on Kathmandu in terms of interviews, events, issues and the like than anywhere else.
Elections offer broadcast journalists opportunities for live reporting, and coverage for developing or running stories that draw large audience with a high degree of concentrated attention. The known and the familiar faces among the candidates in multiple numbers add to the interest, excitement, competition, issues and, indeed, the ultimate results. Backgrounds, major issues at stake, voters’ expectations, election manifestos of political parties fielding the candidates, how the individual candidates plan to tap and pool resources and what would their priorities be constitute aspects of news angles.
Partisan press with flagrant biases can vitiate the atmosphere through deliberate miscommunication. Hindu scripts, Buddhist teachings, and Confucius and Taoist texts want people to be free from the bondage of bias. Confucius emphasises: “The gentleman is broad and not partial; the petty persons partial and not broad.”
Truth deserts partisan pen. An antidote to balance, bias is an assault on audiences, designed to disinform, deceive and perhaps destroy someone’s reputation. Some sections and individuals desire the mass media to be mobilised for demoralising and demonising rivals.
Elizabeth Wissner-Gross, in her Unbiased, categorises some of the types of bias based on race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion, age, appearances and disabilities, socio-economic class and lifestyle.
Since most journalists in Nepal are affiliated to political parties, chances of deliberate slants in news are considerable. An indication of the state of affairs might be gleaned from the fact that no less than six former president of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, which accounts for more than half of the nation’s journalists, are in the publicity team formed by the Nepali Congress in preparation for the impending local elections. Press Chautari, of the CPN (UML), and Press Centre, of the Maoist Centre, are also deeply involved in party politics.
Remedies for putting professional journalism on track include commitment to well-recognised code of ethics; paid but independent ombudsmen known for their integrity for monitoring and evaluating media contents and presentations; incentives (rewards and recognition) for journalists; research works; and candid and knowledgeable media critiques. Forms of news coverage include curtain raisers, poll results, comparative studies, reactions from stakeholders and wrap-ups.
Interviews form a constant source of information for clues, leads and sequence of follow-ups. Prospects of getting new insights, availability of direct quotes, providing access to the big and small among information sources and drawing the detail in proper perspective are among the aspects of interview process.
Abiding curiosity of an organised interviewer results in good delivery. The task: interviews can be a prelude to an event or a follow-up or a summation of an event. Interviews should reveal; offer a new insight; and hence they worth watching, reading or listening to. An informed questioner is a great asset for any media. Interview means asking something new and expecting something that others did not carry. The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein interviewed 1,000-plus persons in four months for their series of stories on the Watergate scandal that climaxed with the resignation of Richard Nixon who was midway through completing his second term at the White House.
Q&A—the formal question-and-answer exercise—means direct quotes throughout, giving the recipient a sense of “being with the interviewee”, who may be the newsmaker, an eyewitness or expert. Interviews provide reporters with a variety of information to add different dimensions to their stories. Of note is the French philosopher Voltaire exhortation: “Judge a man by his questions rather than answers.”
Local media in the districts could be innovative by making greater use of the formal Question and Answer (Q&A) interview format in getting to know the leading candidates and what they propose to undertake if elected. District newspapers rarely resort to such formal interview at other times; at least, during elections they could venture it. An interview in itself is not—and should not be—a public trial.
The significance of information for a reporter depends on the type of news media s/he works for. The scope of assignment flows accordingly. Documents, libraries, Who’s Who, retired officials, former representatives, MPs representing the local constituencies, civil society members, including lawyers, teachers and writers, are among the potential information sources for news gatherers. Former MPs, former local body leaders, former election officials and local experts can contribute vital clues.
In the post-election years, efforts should be made to ensure that meetings of the local bodies are made open for the news media that, in turn, should attend the same for the coverage of developments, events and policy issue discussions as well as initiatives planned, discussed and implemented or planned.