Political coverage: Avoiding manipulation

by David Brewer
Oct 30, 2018 in Specialized Topics

The role of the journalist, in a democracy, is supposed to be to inform the public debate so that the audience can make educated choices.

The role of politicians is supposed to be to represent those who elected them and to ensure that the concerns of that electorate are listened to, considered and, where appropriate, acted upon. In such a political system, the journalist should act on behalf of the audience to ensure that politicians do their job.

The journalist should be exploring and covering the issues that most concern their readers and listeners.

In doing so they should include a diversity of voices and political opinions in order to offer the richest and most complete coverage possible.

If they achieve that, they are more likely to offer journalism that enhances understanding and encourages dialogue and debate.

Journalism is sometimes referred to as "the fourth estate" and is seen by some as being crucial to the functioning of a healthy and fair society.

Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the country's third president, once remarked, "were it left to me to decide whether we should have a Government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter."

Perhaps Jefferson was right in suggesting that journalists are more important to society than politicians. Perhaps, in some societies, the politicians know and fear that.

What is clear is that the relationship between journalists and politicians can have a significant impact on the functioning of a fair and just society. Politicians make decisions and take action on behalf of the public. Journalists scrutinize those decisions and report the implications to the public.

Journalistic types

To understand the relationship between the media and politics, it’s important to look at the various dynamics that can exist between a journalist and a politician. Here are a few that come to mind:

The hunter

Tracks politicians down relentlessly. Follows any trail. This journalist never gives up until they have their prey. They are driven and won’t believe the politician, even when the politician is telling the truth. The hunter journalist can often lack perspective and objectivity. Their contribution to enhancing the understanding of the audience is questionable.

The activist

Committed to a cause and will fight any politician who is against that cause while supporting any politician who backs the cause. This journalist can be blinkered and one-dimensional. They find it hard to achieve balance because they either can’t evaluate the other perspective or because they realize that offering balance may weaken the angle they wish to push. The activist journalist enjoys being seen as the martyr and often risks becoming the story rather than covering the story.

The buddy

Becomes a close friend to the politician and rarely questions their position, often taking the stance that the politician is right regardless of any evidence to the contrary. This journalist will do the politician a favour, but will have limits – usually when they think they will be found out. However they will always be ready to lend a hand when needed if they feel that their coverage might benefit the politician and themselves. The buddy journalist is easily manipulated.

The possession

Owned by the politician through compromise and over-familiarity. They probably lost their journalistic integrity at an early age. Likely to publish anything the politician wants with no questions asked. This journalist is little more than an unpaid member of the politician’s public relations team. They enjoy name-dropping and being seen as connected to the influential.

The party member

Does his or her best to hide their allegiance, but can’t help it showing through in their tone, story choice and their ability (or inability) to ask the searching question. The party member journalist will spend a lot of time rubbishing the political opinions of those with whom they disagree. They can be spotted by their enthusiasm for a story that other, less-compromised, journalists fail to see. They will defend that story choice against all logical reasoning.

The comfortable

I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine. Why fight when you can both have a profitable and easy life? Who will know? This journalist sees their job as a 9 to 5 chore that only serves only to provide the means to exist. Usually enjoys fine wine and good food. Is available to all parties to woo. The comfortable journalist sees this as being fair, impartial and balanced.

The true journalist

Free from party ties, has integrity and can’t be bought, is passionate about informing the public debate, seeks the truth, reports objectively and fairly, and includes multiple perspectives even those they dislike. Is prepared to investigate all they hold dear. Sees nobody as being beyond reproach and is realistic about human nature. The true journalist seeks the truth.

This story first appeared on the site of IJNet’s partner, Media Helping Media (MHM), a training information site that provides free media resources for journalists working in transition states, post-conflict countries and areas where freedom of expression and media freedom is under threat. MHM shares its stories under a Creative Commons license. The complete article is translated in full into IJNet’s six other languages with permission from Media Helping Media.