Dishonest reporting? Media bias and Malawi’s 2014 Tripartite elections

The recently released 2014 elections campaign media coverage monitoring report by Media Monitoring Project has confirmed something I said on this forum last October. Apart from Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, which illegally works and campaigns for the incumbency, news bias is not always a deliberate policy by journalists and their organisations. Bias is often to do with journalism’s structural and systematic flaws.

Among the key areas that have been highlighted from the said study, which covered the period from March 22 and 2nd April, are governing party’s (PP) larger share of coverage and high concentration of coverage on presidential race as opposed to parliamentary race and local government elections. Anthony Kasunda, Media Institute of Southern Africa chairperson has since urged his fellow journalists to give attention and report more on the later.

The status quo is unlikely to change because the nature of reporting as established by the monitors is not necessarily by design. The problem is journalism itself. News has a pattern, a hierarchy: the bigger and more prestige the position or the person, the more newsworthy they are deemed to be, and therefore the more coverage – front pages and main headlines.

News value: Aford's leader Enock Chihana and his wife Tadala jin support of President Joyce Banda
News value: Aford’s leader Enock Chihana and his wife Tadala jin support of President Joyce Banda

It is inevitable that PP would have more coverage, as they are a governing party. Most of the senior members of a ruling party hold senior positions of the state and key public institutions. This makes them newsworthy folk. Majority of news sources and news subjects come from such institutions. For journalists, these are inevitably go to people, for information they need to compile balanced reports – journalists like to call it “objectivity”. It is part of journalist DNA.

This is the case throughout the world. It is more problematic for Malawi however because in Malawi there is a thin-line if at all between political functions and state functions. Folks use every opportunity for politicking. Without any fear of contradiction, I can confidently say that these monitoring results would be the same if not higher for a governing party if media monitoring was to be done any other period and not during electoral campaign.

In 1970s Johan Galtung and Mari H. Ruge of Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway, published what has become an influential a study in the area of journalism and news media. In it the two scholars outlined 12 factors, which they observed are what make news. They called these news values. Among these 12 values there is what they observed as journalism’s obsession with elite persons. This is what concerns our case. The two noted:

“The media pay attention to rich, powerful, famous and infamous. Stories about important people get most coverage. Hence the American President gets more coverage than your local councillor.”

The hierarchy is clear from this observation. It is easy to see where the Media Monitoring Project findings on 2014 campaign coverage are coming from. The president’s office is higher on journalists’ perking order of importance, followed by MPs, councillors are least important. It is most likely that this is one of the key issues that have convinced the local media to rate PP, MCP, DPP and UDF as the country’s ‘main’ political parties.

The live broadcasts of election debates, notably by Zodiak Broadcasting Station is a prime example. Only these ‘main’ parties were invited, leaving out perceived lesser-known candidates, seven of them – not newsworthy enough. Now if this is not political bias, then what is it? Political parties in Malawi have no membership. Therefore, the judgement on the size of a party remains a hypothesis, not on any proven fact.

The problem with this is that candidates are given coverage based on reputation and not strength of their policies. If anything, what makes these four parties ‘bigger’ is the fact they are the only ones that have governed Malawi before. They have built their foundations on state resources. DPP and PP initially got into government through the back door. Nobody elected them, now they are considered big and therefore more newsworthy, deserving our attention.

Yet, the Katsonga brothers, George Nnesa, Helen Singh and other ‘lesser’ mortals in the forthcoming elections may have sound and achievable policies for Malawi but they are denied a platform to showcase what they are capable of. Malawi stands to lose out. Good policies have nothing to do with political party size. Instead of concentrating on individuals and their political parties journalists should concentrate on policies. But they will not, it is harder to try and make sense of policies than concentrating on elite individuals, whether they talk sense or not.

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