A 2015 policy paper compiled by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) identifies several obstacles to the integration of media support into international electoral assistance programmes. The obstacles can be grouped into three main categories: a lack of clarity regarding the definition and role of the media in the electoral process, the politically sensitive nature of the media and the failure of many organisations to plan projects well in advance of election day.
The policy paper observes that the media serves a critical role throughout the electoral process. In addition to promoting public debate and educating citizens, the media monitors the integrity of the process and can be a primary vehicle for accountability demands. Perhaps more than ever before, the media has the potential to significantly impact perceptions and behaviour during elections.
Despite widespread agreement on the media’s centrality to the electoral process, electoral assistance providers do not prioritise media development in their work. Without a more consistent, long-term and sustained approach to media development, election assistance providers risk marginalising the public’s primary means through which to voice their views and direct the trajectories of their countries’ democratisation processes.
In the current age of new technologies, a failure to holistically integrate all media into the electoral process could render traditional actors ÔÇô such as electoral management bodies (EMS) and international assistance providers ÔÇô irrelevant in broader discussions.
The report, which is based on desk research and personal interviews, identifies and addresses the main challenges to integrating the media into election assistance. The report’s main findings indicate that the primary challenges to the integration of media into international electoral programmes assistance are related to serious ambiguity regarding the definition of media and its place within democratisation work, the political sensitivities of host countries, and lack of advance planning and coordination.
As the discourse around media support develops, it will be important for actors to make more proactive use of the electoral cycle approach and to conceive of media assistance as a long-term engagement. Going forward, it will also be critical to think of media as one partner in a complex web of election-related stakeholders, each of which uses (and is used by) the media to inform, educate and communicate.
Greater collaboration with media development specialists, emerging social media experts and other electoral assistance providers will also help enrich media development programmes by making them more responsive to elections and democratisation work.
While it is widely recognised that the media is critical to electoral processes around the world, electoral assistance providers do not tend to rank media support as a high priority in their work due to a wide range of factors, including short funding cycles and a serious lack of consensus on the media’s place in democratisation work. Given the rapid growth of social media, which has revolutionised the media landscape, a more systematic, consistent and comprehensive approach to election-related media support is arguably more important than ever. After all, the failure to recognise the media as a core component of electoral processes could potentially deny citizens the ability to demand and direct democratic outcomes.
The policy paper notes that unfortunately there is no simple way to effectively integrate the media into electoral assistance as election assistance practitioners who wish to incorporate the media into their projects must confront a multitude of questions related to the media, most of which remain the subject of intense debate.
Critical questions raised include where, for instance, does the media fit? Is it a political institution in its own right, with its separate goals and priorities? If so, how can electoral assistance providers partner with the media to find common aims and work together in support of elections? Or is the media part and parcel of elections and therefore something that should be made a standard part of electoral assistance programmes? If that is the case, what kind of support is required to ensure that the media can fulfil its role throughout the electoral process?
Beyond these issues lies the incredible diversity of the media, which electoral assistance providers must also address. What counts as the media? Is social media considered part of the media? How does one decide which media sources to focus on? How should electoral assistance providers deal with national versus local media?
The paper observes that without answers to these fundamental questions, it is difficult to envision and implement an electoral assistance programme that fully incorporates the media. The paper therefore explores all these questions, explains the challenges of media support during elections and presents a set of recommendations to achieve the fuller integration of media in electoral assistance.
Both traditional and new media play critical roles in elections. First, the media serves as a watchdog: they scrutinise the electoral process, and highlight successes and failures to help the public hold them to account. Second, the media acts as a platform for campaigns. Candidates and parties use the media to disseminate their plans, promises and visions for the future. Third, the media provides a forum for election-related public debate and discussion. They allow ordinary citizens to be heard, thereby helping them influence political agendas and other voters. The media is also a public educator. In addition to providing voter education information, journalists offer useful analysis of the news, presenting various interpretations of events and statements. Such analysis helps individuals make informed choices of action.
With regard to elections, national and international media play slightly different roles. While the local media can find themselves constrained by risky domestic contexts, international media are often more free to report on the politically sensitive or controversial aspects of elections.
Until recently, the mass media primarily engaged in ‘one-to-many’ communication. That is, one author or institution communicates messages to many people at the same time in a relatively impersonal way. Examples of ‘one-to-many’ mass media are television, radio and newspapers.
The internet and social media have dramatically altered the media landscape, mainly by facilitating many-to-many communication. Unlike traditional media, social media allows for simultaneous delivery of individualised messages to vast numbers of people. Furthermore, each user has the ability to share, shape and change the content of the information.
Within this new media, it is much more difficult to distinguish between producers and consumers, and ordinary people are now empowered to ‘citizen journalists’ by breaking news stories and disseminating information.
The paper observes that this dynamic has significant implications for elections. For instance, Pew Global (2014) found that 38 percent of social network users in 22 emerging economies reported sharing their views on politics via social media. Engaging in political talk via social media was found to be particularly popular in Arab countries, where up to 70 percent of people reported sharing views on community issues and 60 percent on political issues through social media. Around the world, people from all walks of walks of life are using social media to express their political views not only among their social circles, but with a view to achieving change at the community and global levels.
Unsurprisingly, traditional media outlets are integrating social media into their work. This trend is somewhat natural, given the mainstream media’s longstanding use of interactive features like live programme audiences and talk radio. Today, many media outlets offer multiple avenues for public engagement, including websites with comment sections and social networking sites. This kind of interaction and co-creation of content has changed the face of electoral campaigns, and more broadly has altered the dynamics of the media’s function as a political accountability institution.
There is, however, one issue on which there is widespread agreement: social media does matter, and it cannot be ignored. There is also clear evidence to suggest that social media can increase the potential to directly communicate with specific groups within society, including marginalised and disenfranchised sectors. Across the board, women and young people are heavy users of social media. With the right strategies, backed up by good understanding of these channels and commitment to dedicating the required resources, civic and political engagement initiatives can effectively target these audiences through social media to create meaningful conversation and potentially increase political participation.
Given its potential to impact voter opinion and behaviour, it is hardly surprising that electoral assistance can (and often does) include support for the media. This support is also called media development, a well established concept.
The paper further notes that the media are promoters of accountability in and of themselves. Precisely because they are connected to other stakeholders, who use them to disseminate messages, the media have the power and connections to hold stakeholders accountable. Therefore, it is critical for election assistance programmes to incorporate the media into all aspects of their work and throughout the electoral cycle.