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Content & Media > Book Reviews > The Media and Elections: A Handbook and Comparative Study >

The Media and Elections: A Handbook and Comparative Study

Edited by Bernd-Peter Lange and David Ward

2004 Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

264 pages


Review by Madanmohan Rao (madan@inomy.com)

The compilation of essays in “The Media and Elections” brings together perspectives from academics and practitioners in the field of media and elections. Chapter-length case studies are presented for 7 democracies (developed and developing); one chapter covers reflections from an official European observer of elections in countries like Cambodia. The concluding chapters offer recommendations to the media sector on election coverage policies and practices.

Bernd-Peter Lange is former director general of the European Institute for the Media (EIM), where David Ward also served as director of research. The book is based on the work of the Media and Democracy Programme of EIM.

Two major international instruments proclaiming the importance of the media in the democratic life of societies are the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, Ward begins. He draws distinctions between two approaches pertaining to the role of media in elections: the “light-touch” regulation of the printed press (where only some countries ban paid political advertising), and the broadcast model where regulations govern issues like time and events devoted to coverage of the various parties.

“Even in the so-called mature democracies of the West, equality and fairness are not to be taken for granted,” Ward cautions.

The case studies for each country are systematically structured with themes like political context, media regulations (for fairness, impartiality, access), regulatory authorities, journalistic coverage of various elections, polling, and media controversies.

The case study of Italy reveals the curious phenomenon of the rise of Silvio Berlusconi’s “media party” in 1994, which came to power after winning elections a scant two months after the party was created, thanks in part to a “relentless advertising campaign.” Disputes have arisen because of perceived partisanship of state TV presenters. Challenges arise in Italy with respect to imprecise management of the relationships between ministries, media and regulatory authorities.

In the US, debates continue over the availability of paid advertisements by candidates in elections, and its implications for candidates’ fund-raising skills as well as broader political participation. Embarrassing gaffes such as the premature prediction of the 2000 presidential race in Florida may result in media self-restraint for some time. However, the desire for US media to be able to predict the outcome will be “irresistible” due to economic considerations like ratings and geographical considerations like the wide dispersion of time zones in the US.

Controversies have arisen in Germany over allocation of equal time slots to the various parties. Differences of opinion have arisen in South Africa between the government and the press on the issue of national or public interest, and whether the press should function under a development or liberal-democratic model, or somewhere in between.

Elections in France have opened up interesting challenges to regulation with respect to the role of the Internet; poll results were published in 2001 on a magazine’s Web site during the obligatory banned period.

In Russia, problems have arisen due to the tendency of some media to look to the elections as a way of earning money and resolving economic problems. The journalist community also seems to lack the strength and solidarity to mount any serious threat to political pressures, and self-censorship is already apparent among many journalists.

Controversies have arisen in the UK over the refusal of some broadcasters to air ads perceived to be offensive. Larger concerns arise over perceived voter apathy, news generated via staged campaigns, and commercial pressures on public service obligations. Traffic to news Websites during elections have quadrupled on occasion, but the Internet’s impact on participatory politics is yet to be proven.

Karin Junker, deputy chairman of the German Social Democratic Party’s media commission, provides informative perspectives from her experiences as an official observer of elections in Cambodia, Peru, Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone. The case studies cover themes like observers’ preparation for elections, local team members, election day activities, counting process, and election assessment.

For instance, many observers for Cambodia were not well aware of the poor living conditions and amenities in the country. Language skills of interpreters were limited. Yet, the overall assessment of procedures like managing human traffic, assisting handicapped voters, and counting was very favourable. “In my opinion, the Cambodia election of July 26, 1998 was a prime example of democracy,” says Junker. The successful training of thousands of election committees should have a positive effect for the future of democracy in Cambodia. Pro-democracy Europe-based NGOs like Friedrich Ebert-Stiftung were actively present as well.

Peaceful elections were also conducted in Sierra Leone in 2002. In contrast, free and fair elections were impossible in Zimbabwe in 2000 due problems in the run-up processes. In Peru in 2001, capacity building for election officials who were illiterate was not adequately planned or operationalised.

Junker advises that observers and media should also pay attention to issues like buying of votes, threats to voters, manipulation of electoral registers, voting activities in rural and not just urban areas, number and proportion of blank votes, and overall civil society debates.

“In none of the countries studied in this book is the organisation of elections via the mass media a perfect model,” observes Ward. Legal freedom does not always translate into real freedom, and liberty of media does not always equate to a responsible, independent and balanced approach to the elections.

Bernd-Peter Lange provides a checklist of about 52 items as reflections and recommendations for the media in elections: such as the importance of mid-term checks and assessments, the need for civil society to not be tolerant of dominated media, a legal framework to ensure fair competition in media, assessment of the role of educational institutes in advancing political knowledge, resolution of disputes over bias in a short time within the period of the campaign, critical but not cynical journalistic coverage, and making campaign financing as well as media expenditures transparent.

In sum, this book is an excellent addition to the literature on the important role of the media in elections. The material is well edited and inter-connected, and the chapters are consistently structured. Though the bulk of the material is about Europe (with a little coverage of Cambodia), the underlying issues and themes are very relevant to Asia as well. The book would perhaps spur a similar compilation of essays about media and elections in Asia, which would be most welcome for media professionals, civil society organisations and educators in this region.


Madanmohan Rao is editor of “News Media and New Media” and can be reached at madan@amic.org.sg


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