Was the Media a Mirror, a Megaphone, or just misplaced in its Coverage of the 2024 South African Elections?

2024 weekly election brief8 eisa3 transparent democratic governance in africa

The quality of the media coverage of a societies’ elections is measured not simply by how extensively, accurately and fairly political parties and contestants are covered, but by whether the media exposes voters to the kind of information voters need to know and also whether the media prioritises and reflects voters and citizen concerns. A societies media coverage during an election period can serve to reinforce the media’s role as a mirror of society, and a mirror to society – in both reflecting and framing the issues of concern while also ensuring that those in power are held to account. A critical strength – and in some cases a weakness – of journalism is that it curates a narrative, or a series of narratives, which serves to determine and prioritise what is important to audiences and what not. The media also play a critical role in ensuring that the voices and interests of voters and citizens are not only foregrounded and amplified, but that the issues that are important to the public, are being addressed by potential leaders, politicians and political parties, especially during an election period.

Democratic elections are often framed as being about the contestants and parties, when they are in fact about voters, and the people mobilising, or not, to vote for the next government who will be tasked with protecting and securing the society and distribute resources through setting policy and managing and administering it. The Democratic electoral process affords voters the opportunity to exercise their voice and make choices about who they wish to represent them and ensure their issues are addressed at local, and national level – in Government.

To make informed and effective choices about who to elect to represent them, citizens need to be able to make informed choices. The media therefore, bears a special responsibility to profile issues important to voters in the mainstream narrative and to explain and critically appraise information provided by political leaders and political parties in accessible ways that enable voters to make an informed electoral choice or otherwise meaningfully participate in political debate and public life.

Before the election period, Afrobarometer conducted a survey asking respondents living in South Africa, to list what the three problems that are most important to them that should be prioritised by the Government after the elections. The graphic below shows the results of that survey.

2024 south africa weekly brief 8 eisa transparent democratic governance in africa

According to the data, the five most important problems for people living in South Africa include ‘Unemployment, Electricity/Loadshedding, Corruption, Inflation/Cost of Living, and Poverty”. Other problems making the top ten list include housing, water and crime and security.

One of the methods of verifying whether these issues were on the radar of political parties as problems to be addressed was to ascertain whether the issues formed a part of their campaign messaging, or their party manifesto’s. The media are a crucial component in making sense of political party messaging, conveying and interrogating political campaigns and manifestos of political parties.

In the lead up to the elections, the media had ample opportunity to ensure that the issues of concern to voters were given public attention, brought to the attention of political parties and were generally given prominence in the mainstream political and election narrative. Data from Media Monitoring Africa’s (MMA) analysis of the media’s coverage of elections provides insight into the topics that the news media focused on during the election period.

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The top three topics covered during the campaign and election period were: election logistics, political party campaigning, and political party politics.

To a certain extent this is understandable and would be obvious issues on which to focus coverage. In addition, there was extensive coverage given to the IEC, either about their ability to pull off elections, especially considering the changes to the Electoral system and the amendments to the Electoral Act. Coverage was also focused on the numerous court challenges just ahead of elections that may have impacted on whether the elections were delayed or not.

Media monitoring data researched by MMA reveals that 56% of all elections coverage in the news and current affairs segments of the media were dedicated to just three topics: Elections logistics, party campaigning and inter and intra – party politics. Given the fact that high profile political party campaign events and major rallies were held over this period – deliberately designed for spectacle and to demonstrate large scale support – media outlets were inevitably going to provide the them with extensive coverage. With the split from the ANC, of former ANC President Zuma’s MK Party, it is also unsurprising that large amounts of attention was given to party politics.

More troubling, though – is that the MMA data amply demonstrates that the media allowed political parties to set the agenda for the media, and allowed party messaging to frame the political narrative in general and the election discourse in particular. Inter and Intra – political party politics was one of the dominating topics, which overshadowed other key policy, economic, institutional, service delivery and human rights concerns.

The media are a crucial component in making sense of political party messaging, conveying and interrogating political campaigns and manifestos of political parties.

The following topics were largely ignored or received minimal coverage – with a handful of stories or features, at most.

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Interestingly, the data shows that the problems identified as priorities by respondents in the Afrobarometer survey received almost no coverage – including housing, and poverty and worryingly, the environment. Other topics receiving minimal coverage include children and migration. This isn’t to say that the news media did not cover the issue or attempt to unpack political party manifestos. Some media outlets developed tools to assist voters, such as News24’s “pick your party” which assisted users to navigate party manifesto’s and match manifesto and campaign promises, to voter’s values. Others had pop up channels and held live chat sessions on social media to unpack issues, but on the whole the key challenge – coverage of the key issues that people prioritised – remained.

The news media in general, is currently facing an existential threat. Suggesting that the news media are not covering issues that the public prioritises, or wants to hear about and are therefore engaging the media less may be over simplistic, even though it is a problem. A key contributor to declining revenues – necessary for quality journalism – is gouging of the industry’s advertising revenue by platforms such as Google and Meta. They are a global media threat. In part this requires that the news media may need to reconsider the way they do their jobs. For starters, journalism must “get back to basics” in terms of questioning, probing, investigating and then framing issues. A key feature of media coverage over the 2024 elections was the scarce number of journalists and media outlets querying, questioning or challenging the claims made by political parties and candidates – especially when those statements challenged the legitimacy of the South African Constitution or the credibility of the IEC for example. In other instances news media failed to challenge claims or statements that perpetuated xenophobia. It is important for the media to be able to hold politicians accountable when making claims that are either patently false, or that perpetuate anti-democratic stereotypes.

Each year South Africa runs child protection week as a means of seeking to highlight the importance of protecting children. This year it was launched in the heat of electioneering. See https://www.sanews.gov.za/south-africa/government-launches-child-protection-week. Children generally have little power and influence, and the media coverage they receive is an indicator of this. When they are covered at all, they make up about 7or 8% when they are mentioned in news coverage. this could have been an opportune moment to foreground this issue and force it onto political parties agenda’s, and more importantly, would have been an opportunity to probe political parties on child protection, analysing their mandates, or even asking children for their views on the elections.

According to the Afrobarometer survey, unemployment remains the biggest issue for people in society, yet going by the media coverage people would be forgiven for thinking the electoral process was exclusively about political parties and the IEC, who manages and administers the elections. If the news media as an industry and journalism as a profession, are to survive, they will need to cover the news in a way that meets the needs of their audiences. The most valuable asset the media industry and journalists have, is their credibility and insight, which is undermined when what people are really interested in, or need to know about is largely ignored.

2024 weekly election briefs eisa transparent democratic governance in africa

The South African Elections Weekly Briefs are produced through a partnership between The Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, Media Monitoring Africa and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. The purpose of the partnership interventions is to strengthen peaceful and inclusive participatory electoral processes in South Africa.