Why Elections are Covered as Sport
Sheila S. Coronel
following is an excerpt from the PCIJ's latest book, Cockfight,
Horserace, Boxing Match (Why Elections are Covered as Sport): Lessons
Learned from the 2004 Campaign Coverage. The book examines why election
coverage in the Philippines tends to be superficial and focused
on conflict. Surveys get a disproportionate amount of media attention.
So do the accusations candidates make against each other. Issues,
platforms, and voter's concerns, meanwhile, are largely ignored.
PHILIPPINE elections have always been intense political exercises. Voter turnout is high, and millions take part not just to cast their votes but also to guard the ballots, campaign for candidates, or raise public awareness on the burning issues of the day. No other event can mobilize so many citizens in such a concentrated period of time as elections can.
Elections, therefore, are a mirror. They provide a reflection of the quality of democracy and the level of political discourse in a country. During the campaign, as well as the voting and counting, all the flaws of the political system become obvious. They are writ large in the public mind.
Because of their importance as a political ritual and democratic exercise, elections are also a major media event. But just as elections mirror-with embarrassing accuracy-all that's wrong in a political system, they also cast a harsh light on the media and all its faults.
Media coverage of elections, in the Philippines and elsewhere, has been criticized for its superficiality. Critics have noted the propensity of the media, particularly television, to focus on personalities rather than issues and platforms. The media, it has been said, are consumed by the "horserace" or cockfight aspect of the campaign. Journalists cover elections as sport: Their reporting focuses on who's leading and who's losing out.
Thus, stories on conflict, competition, and controversy dominate. Surveys get a disproportionate share of the coverage while the concerns and aspirations of voters rarely find voice. Spin doctors, PR people, and campaign strategists-fully aware of the way in which elections are covered and the types of stories journalists prefer-tailor their media strategies accordingly. They play to the media's propensity for conflict and intrigue, feeding stories, news angles, and spins that they know will be reported. Thus, they often end up setting the news agenda, steering the direction of election coverage, and monopolizing news space and airtime for their candidates.
Content analyses done in both the 1998 and 2004 elections confirm the media's obsession with personality, "winnability," and opinion polls. In both elections, there was scant coverage of issues and platforms. For sure, there were examples of outstanding reporting and in-depth public affairs programs during the 2004 campaign. There was also audience appreciation for these programs, as seen in the ratings. While the tried and true formulas-personality and conflict-oriented news-rated well, there appeared to be promising prospects for more probing reports, prospects that augur well for the future of broadcast news, in particular. The election showed that there could be other ways of fighting the ratings game, by providing substance and quality instead of the usual sleaze and sensation.
Still, on the whole, as noted by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, which conducted a content analysis of the 2004 election coverage of major newspapers and TV newscasts, there was a "paucity of reports on the leading candidates' platforms." Issues, the CMFR said, were discussed mainly in the opinion sections and other inside pages of newspapers; in television, they were tackled only in public affairs programs aired long after primetime. The content analysis also showed the media's inordinate stress on celebrities, surveys, and the attacks made by candidates against each other. In other words, elections as sport.
This study by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism aims to explain why this is so. It examines the process in which media content is produced and the individuals-
reporters as well as newspaper editors and broadcast news managers-who are responsible for producing that content. It looks at the focus of the coverage and the factors that influence the direction of election reporting, including the bias of media owners, the manipulation by the media bureaus of campaign organizations, and the drive for ratings and sales. This study is on the Manila-based national media and does not tackle the issues specific to the local and community media.
The findings are based on the results of a confidential survey of 59 print and broadcast journalists who covered the 2004 campaign. The reporters were asked a range of questions, from how they prepared for election coverage to the kinds of reports they filed and the media corruption, if any, they encountered in the course of covering the campaign.
In addition, in late May 2004, the PCIJ conducted two focus-group discussions: one for newspaper editors and another for TV news directors. The discussions tackled the problems encountered during the coverage, an assessment of the performance of their news organizations, the intervention of media owners and political parties in the reporting, and suggestions on what could be done better in the future. To ensure a frank and open exchange, the PCIJ agreed to withhold the identities of the participants and those of their news organizations.
Finally, one-on-one interviews with those handling the media bureaus of the five main parties and presidential contenders were conducted in May and June 2004. The same questions-the preparedness of the reporters covering the elections, the thrust of the coverage, the bias of owners, and the influence of campaign organizations on election reportage-were asked of the media handlers.
There were, as can be expected, contrasting views and real gaps in perception. Generally, the reporters gave themselves a high rating in terms of their preparedness for coverage and their actual performance. Newspaper editors, however, were more critical of their reporters. Several complained about the lack of skills and the inability to detect the spin manufactured by campaign strategists. The media handlers of political parties, on the other hand, said that while both print and broadcast reporters were well informed about the background of the candidates they were covering, they needed more preparation for covering issues.
Both editors and media handlers confirmed the media's focus on personalities and neglect of the substantive issues of the campaign. Media handlers complained that reporters were too lazy to read platforms and to do much more than cover what candidates said and did in campaign sorties. Editors and TV news directors, those who headed the media bureaus of candidates said, did not provide sufficient guidance to their reporters and allowed campaign strategists and political spinmasters to set the direction of the coverage. Indeed, the media bureaus of all the presidential candidates were happy that their press releases and their angles and spins usually found their way in all the media.
The editors and news directors, however, blamed the candidates for neglecting the issues in their campaign and their inability or reluctance to explain their platforms. The television news directors reasoned that issues don't sell the newscast, which is not conducive to analysis and explanation. Newspaper editors, however, conceded the shortcomings of their own reporters. There was, in short, blame throwing and finger pointing in all directions.
What this study shows is that the gatekeepers of the news recognize the internal problems in their news organizations that limit the effectiveness of their reportage. Primarily these have to do with the lack of preparation and lack of skills of reporters. TV news directors were keenly aware that much of what goes into the newscast is ratings driven. Tabloid editors conceded that their news judgment was biased toward street sales, while broadsheet editors said that in their choice of what went into their papers, they were "approximating what our readers want."
This keen sense of what will sell is deeply embedded in the consciousness both of reporters and their editors. For this reason, news evaluation is often skewed in favor of the superficial, which translates to saleable. The personality focus and lack of depth of election coverage can therefore be blamed, in large measure, on the extreme commercial orientation of the media. Inadequate preparation and skills makes things worse and allows greater leeway for spinmasters to insinuate their agenda into the reportage.
In the end, what gets into the news are mostly reports that sell as well those that have been manufactured by the spin industry. For sure, the 2004 elections saw innovative public affairs programs on elections and candidates being aired on television while newspapers ran special reports explaining platforms and issues. The Philippine Daily Inquirer carried behind-the-scenes accounts of the different campaigns on its front pages and also published investigative reports during that period. The Philippine Star and the Manila Times printed stories on candidates' platforms on their front pages. But for the most part, the information that voters needed to make intelligent choices about whom to vote for and what issues should take precedence seldom made it to the headlines or the primetime newscast. Instead, these were consigned to the inside papers of newspapers and the late-night public affairs programs on television.
is an excerpt from the PCIJ’s book, Cockfight,
Horserace, Boxing Match (Why Elections are Covered as Sport): Lessons
Learned from the 2004 Campaign Coverage. ORDER
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