An unparalleled opportunity for media developers to boost democracy is at hand in the Middle East and North Africa, writes veteran journalist and media educator Rosemary Armao. Once repressed media and civil society groups are forming in the wake of popular uprisings that toppled or are threatening regimes, she notes in Covering Elections: The Challenges of Training the Watchdogs, a new report for the Center for International Media Assistance.
New constitutions are being drafted, new forms of government debated, and new representatives selected, all against a backdrop of new citizen empowerment and tension among differing parties if not, as in the case of Egypt, outright violence. In addition, new media and technology have radically changed both the political debate in societies and how that debate is covered compared to the past.
High-quality political news coverage seems essential for reform and for the successful formation of democratic governments. Western reporters already have been recruited to give seminars and instruction to counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia. Now is the time to assess years of training journalists around the world in how to cover political campaigns and elections and to solidify in future trainings what has worked.
There will be challenges to accomplishing that. Scant information exists on exactly how much the numerous government and advocacy groups have spent on election training to date. For example, Michael Henning, chief of the Elections and Political Processes Division of USAID’s Office of Democracy and Governance, estimated that his agency alone spends $200 million to $300 million a year globally on elections and political process of which communications is a small piece of each individual program. On election training for journalists specifically, the figure is below $10 million, but Henning cautions that the figure is his guesswork and “not very credible.”
Second, as an article in the Winter 2011 issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Educator emphasized, there is to date little study of the effectiveness of trainings, especially long-range effects, disagreement on what to measure, and weak evidence of links between better reporting and better governance.
Election training for journalists has been something of a sideline in most media development programs. Programs aimed at improving election laws, structures, and processes may include a journalism component, for example. Or efforts to boost investigative reporting might focus on elections in a particularly sensitive year. Media trainers interviewed for this report support the author’s impression that where specialized election coverage programs have been mounted, they have tended to be short term and timed directly before elections, with faulty recruiting of participants, little focus on skills to be imparted in the rush, and no follow-up. Donors, trying to show they have no vested interest in influencing how people vote have also had little input on the content of journalist training.
Experience has prompted the best training organizations to forgo much of the “parachute” training that used to be commonplace and to invest in extended journalism training that includes practical skills and treats election coverage as one specialized and important aspect of what good journalists do. This is an effective way to combat the many barriers to good election coverage faced in the developing world. To summarize them: journalists with little formal training and inexperienced at any kind of reporting are asked in these places to report on elections, which requires knowing about laws, political processes, and history as well as using sourcing, storytelling, and multi-media tools. In places where little is known about interviewing and production, is it realistic to expect one-shot training to quickly make local journalists proficient in the polls, personalities, and policies that comprise in-depth political coverage?
Depending on the trainer, content and approach vary widely. There are some half dozen possibilities. Reporters might be taught the need to root out and report on fraud by parties or the need to talk to citizens to discern and play up the issues that most matter to them in an election. Some trainers focus on compiling voting guides and educating the journalists and citizens about how democracy works.
Others train in management and collaborative methods (organizational meetings and teaming between print and broadcast partners) as a way to get better election coverage. Still others believe emphasizing ethics and the need for accurate, fair, and balanced coverage is the best way to use the limited time given for election training. Trainers disagree about the need for teaching reporters in the developing world to dig into campaign finance records and write high-quality opinion and commentary–as well as on the possibility for success of such training.
Election trainings could be strengthened with some attention to a few opportunities currently being missed. Among these is increased cooperation between American and Western European donors in both funding long-range journalism training and improving the content of training. Intensive, practical training–and maybe equipment–in the use of technology so that reporters can take advantage of social networking, cellphones, and computerized graphics is overdue.
Technology makes political stories personal, urgent, and get the audience involved. Even in places where computers have not reached a majority of the population, significant groups of users, especially young people, already exist. Journalists with both experience or personal backgrounds in Eastern Europe and the Middle East and training in the West have proven especially valuable as trainers in newly developing countries. They have had success teaching even sophisticated reporting techniques and are less easily discouraged by difficulties securing information. Also, better use might be made of increasingly sophisticated understanding of voting processes by academics in the fields of political science and statistics. Finally, election trainers need to reach out to election monitors who have worked for years in countries just now experimenting with elections. They have a wealth of experience and examples to draw from on what to look for in election processes. Election monitors acknowledge that outreach to journalists is an important but neglected area for them.
Read the rest of Covering Elections: The Challenges of Training the Watchdogs.
Rosemary Armao is an assistant professor of journalism/communication at the State University of New York at Albany and a consultant and member of the board of directors of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Bosnia and the Organized Crime and Corruption Project based in Bucharest. In a career of 40 years she has written and edited at a number of U.S. newspapers, taught in several universities, and worked on reporting and media development projects in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe. She is the author of a 2010 CIMA report, Covering Corruption: The Difficulties of Trying to Make a Difference.
The Center for International Media Assistance is an initiative of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
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