HomeOpinionPeer Review: Election reporting should avoid headline-grabbing trivia

Peer Review: Election reporting should avoid headline-grabbing trivia

NEVANJI MADANHIRE Media Literacy And Fact Checking
The March 26 by-elections have been described by contesting parties as a dry run of the important 2023 harmonised elections. I desisted from using the now jejune adjective “watershed” because every general election since I can remember has been described as such. “Important” sounds mundane, but I chose it because it conjures some meaning in the minds of anyone who reads it.

But who defines elections as “watershed” or whatever? It’s mainly the media. For the political parties and the voters, an election is an election and all elections are important. The media should do the nation a favour by reporting the elections in a way that doesn’t deceive the electorate, but in a way that informs it so it can make responsible choices.

In the past, the reporting of elections has used the same template which made the elections contests between individuals instead of a contestation of ideas.

Since the turn of the millennium, elections have been contests between individuals. For the better part of that time the contest was between strongman Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai. In 2018, it was a contest between two new leaders of the main political parties, Zanu PF and MDC-T, Emmerson Mnangagwa and Nelson Chamisa, respectively.

The 2023 elections are important in several ways, not least because everyone sees and wants them to define a new era. Zimbabwe has been in a logjam for way too long and everyone hopes for relief. The relief that everyone needs is that these elections become a contestation of ideas where the best ideas win. But the best ideas have to be fronted by the right people who can deliver what the people wish for. All this should be the duty of the media to convey.

In the past, the media has concentrated on reporting what I always call “headline-grabbing trivia”. The themes have always been the same: the electoral violence, the factional fights and the incompetence of those running electoral processes. Whereas these themes are important, they have not uplifted the thinking of the electorate, especially that of the silent majority, which is the demographic that determines how our country is run. The headlines have been able to grab readers’ and listeners’ attention, but have not added value to what is generally known.

Reporters should take a new approach which educates the electorate on what to look out for so that when election results are announced, they will be able to assess for themselves if the results are a fair reflection of the voting that took place. Zimbabwean reporters have tended to prepare the voting public for a rigged result even when no rigging has happened. This is what headline grabbing trivia does.

Reporters have never taken it upon themselves to really look deep at the contesting political parties’ readiness for elections. In the coming by-elections are parties ready? What does it mean to be ready? Some parties hold primary elections to choose their candidates; others appoint such candidates; which process helps parties be ready for elections? In previous elections we have seen some parties field more than one candidate in a constituency and later when they lose that constituency they allege rigging. Reporters should interrogate the readiness of political parties to contest.

An important aspect that the media has neglected in reporting elections is to show whether political parties understand their mandates. What do they set out to do and what does the electorate expect of them? This speaks to the clarity of the vision which should be clearly spelt out in their manifestos. In spite of his charisma, Tsvanagirai probably lost it for lack of this clarity of mandate. First, his vision was defined simply by the word “change” and later by the mantra “Mugabe must go”. But did these define his own and his party’s mandate? Did his people, those he was leading in the war, understand their mandate? Reporters have not interrogated the issue of mandate in their electoral reporting.

Another important theme that reporters have neglected is whether political parties understand what they have to do to win supporters? What is each and every political party doing to win supporters; not only win supporters, but make the electorate vote for them? Zanu PF knows exactly what it has to do: loads of carrots and loads of sticks. Opposition parties have not figured out ways to counter this. Reporters should be able to question opposition leaders and make them spell out exactly what they are doing to win supporters. Being cry-babies doesn’t win supporters.

When reporting on opposition parties, reporters should look at whether the parties are behaving like governments-in-waiting. If such-and-such party were to win elections in 2023, does it have the capacity to govern? Who are the shadow ministers and what do they have to offer?

If reporters do not go for the shadow ministers, they are not informing public debate. What weak opposition candidates do is to hide in the skirts of charismatic leaders and emerge when such a leader has been victorious. This is what has promoted cultism in Zimbabwean politics.

In Zimbabwe, political parties have been conflated with civil society? In most cases, actors in the latter have been more vocal and more active than the politicians themselves. This has misled opposition parties into taking the back seat while believing they are fighting to win supporters through the actions of civil society activists. Reporters should be able to unravel this and show opposition politicians their weaknesses.

Madanhire is the Zimind associate editor

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