Opinion

Topic: Objective Reporting as a Requisite for successful Election 2023

Professionalism in the discharge of journalism practice: Paper delivered by Lanre Ogundipe at workshop organized by Nigeria Press Council (NPC) ahead of 2023 general elections in Nigeria

Professional journalism is the conduct of media affairs (coverage and activities) in a manner that upholds high ethical standard, accountability, legality and credibility, while exercising rights such as freedom of expression and information. An important element in media practice is the degree of professionalism and the experience of journalists and other media practitioners.

As far as Nigeria is concerned, media persons cannot be said to lack the experience nor the wherewithal to demonstrate the best standard practices. I can, therefore, state here unequivocally that journalism practice has placed the country on the world map, where high standard of professionalism is practised. It is expected that journalists in a country that emerged roughly two decades ago from a highly restrictive political system, should lack some of the skills and capabilities of their counterparts in countries with a long history of independent media practice. Let me point out explicitly that journalism experience in an authoritarian regime may not be entirely negative. In many cases, courageous and assertive journalism has played an important part in pressuring dictatorships to open up the political space. Media practitioners who have successfully investigated and published sensitive stories would have developed professional skills that are unmatched by their colleagues in friendlier circumstances. In the context of an election, the professional challenge will be to bring these skills to bear on a new and unfamiliar set of stories to be reported. Most of the ethical and professional issues that journalists encounter in covering elections are variants of what they confront in their daily reportage/coverage of events. However, these issues and the dilemma they constitute may present themselves in particular and unique ways during elections.Such professional dilemma might include:

Evaluation of newsworthiness versus balanced and thorough coverage

News coverage is typically driven by consideration of what is unique or remarkable and, therefore, of particular interest in an event. Yet electors require fair and balanced presentation of the manifestoes and agendas of the different parties (which may be far from distinct or interesting).

The question, therefore, is how can the media reconcile their news function with their public service function?

Transparency versus integrity of the electoral process:

One of the reasons why the role of the media is critical in democracies especially emerging ones, is that they are able to scrutinise and expose malpractices in elections. However, proper administration of an election requires consideration for security and confidentiality. Balancing these two elements, i.e., media access (or should I say freedom?) and security/confidentiality is an issue for lawmakers and those responsible for drawing up electoral regulations.

Journalists, as critical stakeholders, are equally challenged by the need to combine security of the exercise with the ethos of their profession, viz: objectivity, probity and high ethical standards.

*Reporting inflammatory speeches*

Politicians are more likely to express extreme and inflammatory sentiments during election campaigns – with the intention of impacting large audiences. Yet, it is perhaps paradoxical that while election campaigns are often accompanied by fiery rhetoric and sentiments that sometimes generate negative consequences, election periods/campaigns are also occasions when freedom to express differing political views is of utmost importance. The implication of this is that a dilemma has been created which policymakers must resolve. For journalists, the challenge is to report inflammatory political speech in a manner that is both accurate and least likely to provoke violence or generate backlash.

*Resourcing elections coverage*

In the developing world, media organisations often operate with meagre resources, and journalists are often poorly paid. This creates a number of ethical problems for editors. For example, what should a media outlet do if there are not enough journalists (or supporting communication equipment and funding) to cover an election? For some, one answer has been to allow journalists to receive per diem or honoraria or other material reward for covering an event, sometimes from a candidate or contestant, a practice which, although widespread, is, in fact, tantamount to bribery and is equally detrimental to independent reporting.

At this juncture, consideration must given to the followings in the discharge of the coverage:

*Codes of conduct, Legal issues in election reporting, Accuracy in election reporting, Impartiality in election reporting, Responsibility in election reporting*

As the organiser – NPC has deemed it right to refresh the memory of Journalists on standard electoral reportage and retooling by exposing media practitioners to requisite training in readiness for the next general elections – we shall be looking at how to adhere strictly to the tenets of the entire electoral processes. This ensures that trainees are able to fully acquire and deployed effectively a variety of tools and consequently, (are properly) equipped to overcome challenges unique to each phase. There are a number of questions to be addressed when institutions or organisations plan trainings, seminars or courses looking into various ways through which elections can be imparted to get better results with new reporting skills.

*Election Coverage*

Effective coverage of an election is one that is planned. Whether planning entails complex deployment of resources or skilful maximising of scarce ones, election coverage will not work properly without it. An effective election coverage plan addresses the following questions:

*What resources are available? Is there a special budget for election coverage, or will it have to be met out of the normal editorial budget? What staff are available – is there a budget to hire additional staff or freelancers?

*What is the timetable of the election? When are the crucial phases and to what extent will it be possible to prepare coverage for these phases in advance?

*What are the particular issues in this election and how far will these issues influence the way in which a particular media outlet organises its coverage? Will the security/political environment allow journalists to put their new elections-reporting skills to practice?

What innovations in coverage will the media outlet need to make? What will be the distinct features of its coverage? What are the interests and needs of the media outlet’s audiences and other key stakeholders, vis-a-vis election coverage?

The answers to these questions will differ enormously depending on whether the media outlet concerned is, say, a television network or a local newspaper. The scale of operations will also vary. However, planning issues remain essentially the same. The following checklist highlights issues that editors will need to address before the start of an election campaign._ (This list is adapted from the International Federation of Journalists’ Election Reporting Handbook.)_ In this case, the campaign has already started.

* Key dates of the election process: voter registration, candidate nomination, campaign period, voting day, announcement of results, etc. Regulations and laws affecting election coverage during each of these periods.  Budgets for election coverage and identification of more costly election phases;

* Teams who will cover the election – as well as political staff, other specialised reporters tend to cover particular aspects of the campaign; Election coverage management– senior editors who will decide on sensitive matters that emerge in the course of the campaign. Technical and operational arrangements*

Any additional personnel?

* Resources such as election experts and pundits, who can advise on election matters, training material, or photo and video libraries; Reputable companies to run opinion surveys; Angles, focuses and priorities that are appropriate to our media organisations and audience; Reporting formats, particularly when a media outlet is multi-media; Emergency and journalist-safety planning.

As indicated in the checklist, journalists covering an election require different knowledge and tool sets for each of the electoral phases or periods of the election. Not only will content of coverage differ, but there will also be variations in rules and regulations applicable to each period. Common electoral phases or periods that journalists will need to contend with are: Voter registration, Candidate nomination and pre-campaign, Campaign, Voting, Counting and Results.

In conclusion there’s no doubting the fact that Media or Journalism is key to successful election/ stable polity if the media industry and the indeed the stakeholders would give it what it takes giving necessary attention to the sustainable development the industry and practitioners. The prisms that says to whom much is given, much is expected, Journalists should rise from this seminar to rededicate themselves to the total commitment to the profession ethos and defend the ethics.

Thank you all

Lanre Ogundipe is a veteran journalist and former President Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ)

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