Television and radio newsrooms are already gearing up for next year's election, amd debates about how to cover the parties fairly, writes Jocelyn Newmarch in Business Day.

Jocelyn Newmarch writes in Business Day:

Local broadcasters are already planning how best to cover the elections next year, although the election date has not yet been proclaimed. And although the local media usually offers fair and impartial coverage, media analysts say there is also room to offer exciting and compelling coverage.

The election period in the US offered American broadcasters the chance to pump up ratings and gain audience share as consumers, inspired by one of the most exciting presidential races in their country, turned out in unprecedented numbers to vote.

Although SA is also heading into an exciting election period , local broadcasters seem unlikely to seize their chance in quite the same way that MSNBC and Fox News did — offering unashamedly partisan coverage. SA’s broadcast media, including the commercial media, has to abide by the Independent Communications Authority of SA’s (Icasa’s) rules for election coverage. This ensures that coverage is largely fair and equitable, and the media has a good record in following those rules.

But it also means that coverage is too often cautious rather than compelling.

The SABC and will have different requirements, says Wadim Schreiner of Media Tenor. Private broadcasters in the US “can do anything they like,” but local media is bound by the Icasa regulations, says Schreiner. And because the SABC is a public broadcaster, more is expected of it than of and it is more closely monitored. Political parties are entitled to equitable coverage, but this is difficult to work out.

He says the African National Congress (ANC) got almost 70% of the national vote in the previous elections, but should it then get 70% of the coverage?

Such coverage would undermine minority parties, which say they would never be able to catch up with the main parties. For the SABC, there is also the question of how to balance the ANC versus the breakaway Congress of the People (COPE) party. “Most likely they won’t get it right, because whatever they do, someone will be offended.”, however, is entitled to do as it wants as long it adheres to Icasa’s rules and the basic tenets of journalism, both of which centre on fairness, says Schreiner.

Media Tenor’s research has shown that is “very negative” towards the government, but that, says Schreiner, is the nature of TV. can be expected to be negative towards the ANC as the ruling party. “Possibly they will allow smaller parties a greater voice. And they will go for newsworthy stories.”

His organisation does not monitor Talk Radio 702, but Schreiner expects it to be “as balanced as possible”, although the nature of journalism is such that sometimes an individual’s opinions slip through. “I think they made a mistake having the (Mosiuoa) Lekota press conference at their own premises — it raised the question of who’s using who.”

The SABC did not respond to questions about its election strategy r, but in a press statement it says it is committed to providing impartial coverage of all parties, despite journalists having received threats and abuse from politicians. It has appointed an independent monitoring company to scrutinise news bulletins, panel discussions, public affairs programmes and election coverage. The broadcaster says 80% of South Africans depend on it for their news. says its strategy is still confidential.

Talk Radio 702, however, plans to live up to its tagline as the “number one news and talk station” by providing up-to-the-minute independent and accurate news, says spokesman Yusuf Abramjee. It will also provide panel discussions and debates, and may organise town hall meetings, as it did in the previous elections, where parties and their supporters were invited to meet.

Although broadcasters will attempt to offer objective coverage, Schreiner says the perception of objectivity is itself subjective. “You’re always looking at it from a selective point of view,” he says, explaining that the ANC and the Democratic Alliance might feel differently about whether a particular broadcast is objective. “You always feel the negative more than the positive.”

William Bird of the Media Monitoring Project says: “They’re so intent on being fair that their coverage can be boring . Instead of being imaginative, they have panel discussions with the same type of people. Most of the election coverage is about following the leaders … The current political climate is so exciting that you can still be fair and come up with new angles.

"Another thing that would be useful would be for the media to adopt an agenda. They could say: in our community these are the three most important issues, and we’re going to focus on them. Obviously we will still cover major election news, but unless it’s speaking to the issues, we’re not bringing you the story,” he suggested. This would help to differentiate coverage and focus analysis on parties’ policies.

“And a tip for the public broadcaster — get your courage back and ask the hard questions of every party. It’s all about getting the politicians to remember they work for us.”

Save Our SABC Coalition spokeswoman Kate Skinner said she wanted broadcasters to “really flesh out policy issues” and to move away from “just covering rallies”. “That doesn’t help anyone to decide what party to vote for.”

*This article first appeared in Business day on 28 November.