How Should Lebanese Media Cover the Upcoming Legislative Election?
It’s a loaded question in a country crippled by a financial meltdown, sectarianism, clientelism, hyperinflation, record-high unemployment, spiking crime, staggering corruption, massive emigration, chronic power cuts, food and medicine shortages, and collective PTSD.
Can there be accurate, fair, balanced, humane and ethical coverage by print, broadcast, online and digital multimedia journalists as Lebanon’s May 15 parliamentary election approaches?
Yes and no, considering the incredible pressures on people producing daily news and the prospect of the election’s cancelation by groups involved in Lebanon’s systematic destruction.
While journalists I’ve trained over the years often complain their bosses don’t always let them apply workshop lessons, they’re appreciative to have acquired knowledge and skills those same bosses never provide on the job.
Entering the fray ahead of the election to select candidates (including incumbents) to the 128-seat chamber requires deft media handling, as countless reporters, editors, producers, photographers and others in the field carry heavy confessional/political baggage.
I’ve already seen plenty of kowtowing to the powers-that-be, tripping over one’s feet to focus on politicians’ and candidates’ mudslinging, outbreaks of violence by candidates’ flunkies and featuring endless social media inanities.
But I’ve also come across solid digging for facts, good explainers of a rather complex and unfair electoral process that requires serious reform and efforts to uncover what contenders would prefer to keep hidden.
So, here’s a reminder to media colleagues who may have doubts about their role in this race:
The media’s task is to be an observer, not a cheerleading participant, of the election. Journalists don’t (and shouldn’t) work for the electoral supervisory body, political parties or candidates’ programs.
Media should observe and report on the rights of voters, candidates and parties. Journalists should amplify people’s voices, not just politicians’ promotional pitches.
Journalists should ask probing questions and substantive follow-ups, not settle for worn out clichés recycled by the political class and their progeny.
Speaking of which, countless Lebanese candidates and incumbents are the children, grandchildren or great grandchildren of former legislators, cabinet ministers and presidents in a dizzying game of musical chairs.
Journalists should avoid mistakes in reporting on opinion polls: trusting “voodoo” surveys, ignoring the margin of error, comparing apples and oranges, and ignoring sample sizes. Other key indicators to uncover: who finances and supervises polls, how many people are surveyed, how are they selected, when is a survey conducted, what are the polling organization’s political inclinations?
Journalists should learn the proper electoral terminology. It’s a tedious, but necessary, activity.
Reporters must check official government websites providing information on the election every day for any changes, big or small, and comb through tons of arcane data. The devil is in the details, and some of them can be quite revealing.
Media shouldn’t just regurgitate political speeches at campaign stops and rallies but should provide contextual background information on their meaning and audiences’ (including political rivals’) reactions to what’s being said.
Journalists should study different political parties’ strategies, histories, and track records, as well as politicians’ accomplishments (if any). Many new or young candidates don’t have much to show or offer — because they’re scions of political families and feel entitled — so media should double down and demand clarity on their positions.
Journalists should distinguish between hard news on the one hand and editorials, opinions and analyses on the other. In the fog of electoral war, Lebanese media regularly cross those lines.
Journalists should handle social media with the same care as traditional outlets in terms of sourcing, fact-checking and story ideas. They should ensure their personal and others’ cyber security and privacy are protected.
While written and spoken words are important, visuals are equally essential in storytelling. Photos, videos, infographics and now augmented/virtual and mixed reality elements are compelling elements in media packages that require journalists to be well trained in digital multimedia skills.
Interviews with candidates and incumbents must be built on solid research and questions should focus more on what, how and why, than on when, where and who. Quotes must not be taken out of context.
A key element to good reporting is ensuring gender balance in content. Are women’s voices as candidates, voters and experts given equal play as those of men? Are women pigeon-holed in certain roles and stereotyped in media coverage? Are media providing content of interest to women beyond news of celebrities and home-making?
Journalists should have risk mitigation plans and procedures to follow. Under ideal circumstances, which Lebanese elections don’t present, media should expect all manner of dangers and harassment, notably to women on their teams, and not least of which online.
Lastly, journalists should be vigilant fact-checkers and not fall victims of mis-, dis- and mal-information that have been tools of the political trade since time immemorial.