The Unit has been set up by the Malawi Electoral Commission to monitor the performance of the nation’s media, in the run-up to the coming elections. The standards by which MEC’s media monitors are already assessing the performance of the broadcasting and print media houses were established in April 2008 when the leaders of all the main companies voluntarily drew up their own self-regulating Media Code of Conduct. This Code, which was signed publicly in June 2008, is comparably with accepted international best practice. 12 Malawians are trained to monitor the media.
The Code calls upon the media to be fair and accurate in its reporting at all times and to give equitable coverage to political parties.
The system by which the Media Monitoring Unit is assessing the performance is by recording virtually all the political output of all national broadcasting, both public and private and by dissecting the content of every issue of the national daily papers. Every political item, whether it be news or comment, interview, discussion, debate, press conference, walk-about, convention or rally is measured for broadcast time or newspaper space.
The Unit is currently studying daily, page by page, the contents of The Daily Times, Malawi News and The Sunday Times, The Nation, the Weekend Nation and the Sunday Nation. TVM, MBC1 and 2, 101, Capital, MIJ FM, Zodiak, Radio Islam, Radio Maria, TWR, Star Radio and Joy Radio are all recorded seven days a week.
How does the Unit decide what is “positive” and what is “negative”? “Positive” signifies of positive electoral advantage. Negative coverage (coverage of negative advantage to the party concerned) is perfectly proper where the reporting is delivering a true picture. Providing negative coverage exclusively is obviously unfair and contrary to the Code’s call for balance.
Care is taken in the process to separate and exclude anything that is basically government business. However the Media Code specifically points out that if an event that is, on the surface, government business is used in total or in part for openly promoting the electoral interests of whichever party is in power, such use of an electoral opportunity should be included in the assessment of what constitutes balanced coverage.
WHAT IS DEMOCRATICALLY BALANCED JOURNALISM?
These notes set out to explain to Media Code signatories and to all interested voters what the significance of “positive” and “negative” is in MMU reports that appear in the newspapers.
The MMU categorizes political coverage in terms of its beneficial or detrimental value to political parties. Is this report positive or negative to the electoral interests of the party or parties that it concerns? Giving one party over a period of time only ‘positive’ coverage (i.e. good news for them) and another party only ‘negative’ coverage (i.e. bad news for them) is not proper balanced democratic journalism. Is ‘negative coverage’ a breach of the Media Code? No. Not unless it is being used as part of a campaign to discredit a political party. ‘Positive’ and ‘Negative’ in this context are not about the quality of the journalism but about the electoral value of particular coverage to a political party.
The current series of published reports by the MMU with their graphs and charts and the associated text attempted to show the degree of fairness being achieved by the media in political coverage.
One of the most frequently raised charges against individual media houses is the one that says “That newspaper,” or “That broadcast channel only promotes Party X” or “only attacks Party Y”. The defense is “Ah, but we reported on Party Y’s Press Conference last week”. “Yes, but then you did a two hour discussion with Party X politicians pulling Party Y’s statements to pieces…” And so the argument goes back and forth. The MMU’s intention is to clarify this by monitoring the great majority of political coverage by the media and actually timing with a stopwatch every item in news bulletins and in other political coverage, discussions, debates, commentaries, call-in talk shows, rallies, editorial and so on. With newspapers, the monitors measure the same categories with a ruler to the nearest centimeter.
If we stopped there, and supposing Party X and Party Y on Channel A both, on the face of it, had received equal total time over a lengthy period, would everyone agree that that was “fair”? Highly unlikely. Party Y might say (possibly correctly) “But they only publish negative news about our party!” By this they would mean that the paper’s or channel’s coverage of their party usually sought to discredit them rather than give them a chance to present their policies and answer challenges and charges from elsewhere.
So the monitors at MMU make an assessment. Would Party X be generally satisfied that this item was of positive benefit to the party? Or was the item of negative value to them? (It could possibly occasionally be “neutral” but not often since any publicity for a party must be an advantage unless obviously detrimental.)
So there is nothing automatically wrong, abnormal or contrary to the Media Code or to ‘best practice’ journalistic ethics in the publication of stories that happen to be detrimental to the interests of a political party. Life is full of bad news. Parties make mistakes. Politicians could get arrested. Commentators are entitled to be highly critical of political actions and policies but the point is this:
If a media house (on which the public depend to discover the political choices available), chooses, over a substantial period, to spend a great deal of its coverage promoting party W (while ignoring that party’s real problems or any legitimate criticism it faces) and if that media house also (or alternatively) fails to let the people know what Parties X, Y, Z stand for and additionally reports only those parties’ failings or adverse reports from whatever source, then that media house can reasonably be described as being unfair.
Achieving balance is not only the democratic duty of every director, manager, editor in chief etc, it must also be reflected in the performance of each and every journalist whether working in the newsroom or reporting in the field.
Countries around the world have Media Codes of Conduct that differ in wording but all contain the same urging to democratic standards. Malawi’s Media Code of Conduct can be found on this website.