Who set the news agenda and how they got away with it during the 2016 municipal elections in South Africa?


Wellington Radu, Media Monitoring Africa | 9 September 2016

On 3 August 2016 South Africa held its fifth municipal elections since the dawn of democracy in 1994. These elections are different to national and provincial elections in that they are meant to put into office those who will deliver services at the local government level. For the first time, these elections saw the ruling African National Congress (ANC) lose four big metros to opposition parties. On the media front, these elections came at a time when media in South Africa were facing many challenges ranging from failing business models to lack of resources, newsrooms staffed by inexperienced staff with a poor grasp of the municipal arena, and specifically a poor grasp of the local government political and electoral system. In addition the "disruptive" nature of new technology and social media are all - amongst the challenges that saw media workers and media outlets being expected to do more - with very little resources, experience or assistance from media owners.

Despite these challenges, with every election, the media have the potential to play a critical role in ensuring that the electorate is fully informed. They do this by updating citizens on political goings-on, by stimulating dialogues about political parties and by keeping political parties accountable to their promises. They also help voters understand what contesting political parties would do to solve specific challenges such as unemployment, health, housing and education, if they were voted into power. They also make elections relevant to a variety of people by accessing diverse voices (including marginalised voices) that reflect the different views in society.

In order to assess whether the media actually performed these roles, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) analysed the coverage of these municipal elections by over 70 mainstream and community media across print, broadcast and online for a period of two months in the run-up to the elections. Over 8150 stories were analysed and the findings below reveal the political parties that were covered, the issues the media focused, on as well as the people who were accessed. These findings serve as a sneak preview into how South African media covered these elections and whether the media adequately informed the electorate to cast an informed vote.

The parties were few...

In an election period, media ought to cover all contesting parties in ways that ensure that the electorate know which party and/or candidates they could vote for. The figure below shows the top 5 political parties that were covered. This was measured by counting the number of political party sources that were accessed directly or indirectly by the media.

Figure 1: Political parties covered by all media

Figure 1: Political parties covered by all media

Clearly, 5 political parties received most of the media coverage with the ANC leading the pack followed by the DA, EFF, NFP and the IFP, respectively. As has always been the case with every election since the first democratic elections, top 5 political parties have always received almost 90% of the total media coverage, leaving the rest of the parties to share the remaining 10%. Independent candidates were invisible even though there were a sizable number of them contesting these local government elections. These results suggest that the electorate were not fully informed of the spectrum of political parties to choose from. The ANC received most of the media coverage is consistent with what we have recorded in previous elections, however in this election the coverage was largely focused on the political jostling, infighting and killings that rocked the party in areas such as Tshwane and KwaZulu-Natal, respectively.

While these "event-based" stories should have been covered, they shouldn't have shifted media attention away from other core electoral issues. Although these stories were crucial for the electorate to understand political actions and conduct, media needed to also interrogate politicians and political parties on their promises. Since media has access to politicians, which ordinary people often don't have, they should ask questions on behalf of the electorate in order to help them make a more informed choice on voting day. By not covering the full spectrum of political parties and independent candidates contesting these elections, voters were left in the dark regarding other options they perhaps might have had.

The issues were neglected...

Another critical role of the media in any election period is to help voters understand what contesting political parties would do to solve specific challenges (e.g. unemployment, health, housing, education etc.) if they were voted into power. What we hoped to see, then, were stories that interrogated critical societal issues and challenged political parties on their promises and actions. However, we saw the media focusing on the issues shown in Figure 2 below. These were identified by narrowing each story to a specific topic that it dealt with.

Figure 2: Top 10 topics covered by all media

Figure 2: Top 10 topics covered by all media

By and large, the majority of topics covered relate directly to parties, politics and politicians while very few deal with citizen-related issues such as manifesto analyses, voter education and crime. This shows that the media focused more on stories about party campaigns, party politics and political violence, than on issues that may have helped inform the electorate about the parties' promises or those that interrogated issues citizens themselves were raising. While covering political news remains an important aspect of elections coverage, these types of stories should not negate the opportunity to confront political parties and their promises on behalf of the electorate.

Crucially, if these elections were about which parties and/or candidates would most effectively deliver services, why did stories that directly deal with such issues including land, education, housing, poverty and labour not feature in the coverage? Further, why were topics about children, health and sport literally absent in the coverage? Are these not election issues? It is such stories that would help the electorate make an informed choice as they create opportunities for politicians to be taken to task on how to deal with these issues. That issues that are fundamental priorities for the electorate were largely neglected by the media suggest that those with political power were driving the media agenda rather than the very electorate they were meant to be informing and serving.

The people didn't matter...

The people quoted in the media play an important role in defining and shaping the elections agenda. It is from their lens that we view, engage and interpret the electoral process. In that regard, it is the role of the media to access diverse voices (including marginalised voices) that reflect the different views in society. Thus we looked at whether the media lived up to this mandate by exposing the people who spoke about the elections. The sources accessed were identified in each story as directly or indirectly quoted by the media.

Figure 3: Sources accessed by all media

Figure 3: Sources accessed by all media

That political parties and politicians were accessed the most as shown in Figure 3 above is hardly surprising because this was an election period. However, by allowing politicians to set the elections agenda, media neglected ordinary people whose vote is most crucial for politicians. It is no wonder the elections coverage was largely on political interests instead of service delivery related issues such as the provision of water, healthcare, education, etc. While it was necessary for media to access politicians it was equally important to hold them accountable by seeking voices that counter political rhetoric often driven by politicians when canvassing for votes. This could have been achieved by giving other groups more opportunities to voice their concerns. After all, elections are not just about politicians. They are about the people who cede their power to politicians through the ballot, yet their voices were minimal.

To fully comprehend how politicians set the agenda in these elections one has to look at the most accessed people shown below. In order to determine this, we counted the number of times each person was quoted directly and indirectly across all media whose content was analysed.

Figure 4: Top 20 people accessed by media

Figure 4: Top 20 people accessed by media

The sexes were abandoned...

This clearly shows how powerful political interests shaped the coverage of these elections as these politicians were accessed to comment. The fact that only two out of the top twenty people accessed were women brings an interesting gender dynamic. Certainly this cannot be an indication of a lack of female candidates who could have been asked for comments. Further, despite women constituting 52% of the population and 55% of the registered voters, more than 80% of the people who were quoted in all stories are male as shown below.

Figure 5: The sex of sources accessed by media

Figure 5: The sex of sources accessed by media

Sadly, this figure is a regression from the 29% female sources we recorded during the 2014 national and provincial elections and the 25% we recorded during the 2011 municipal elections. Although what caused the dip might be an area for speculation and is a reflection of societal imbalances across gender, it suggests that media tend to look for the views and opinions of men especially when it comes to political issues. While there may be societal barriers that prevents women from being accessed, this further entrenches the dominance of patriarchy where men often speak about and on behalf of women as if they understand how women are affected by different issues. The problem with this is that these elections, like all the previous elections we have analysed, was seen through the eyes of men yet women outnumber men both in terms of population and the number of registered voters.

The races didn't matter...

Given that South Africa comes from a very dark past segregated along racial lines, it would be na´ve to talk about elections and not invoke issues of race given that at some point in the history of the country race was the sole decider on whether you have the right to vote or not. If we go by the 2011 census figures, which put Blacks at 79.2%, Whites and Coloureds at 8.9% each and Indians at 2.5%, it is clear that with the exception of Whites, media coverage mirrors the country's demographics as shown below. However, this does not matter much especially given that gender coverage is skewed. Further, even though the media coverage mirrors the country's racial demographics, sometimes the voices of marginalised groups like children need to be amplified. Be that as it may, if media could get it right with race, why not gender or children?

Figure 6: The race of people accessed by media

Figure 6: The race of people accessed by media

Free, fair, transparent and credible elections are in part enabled by a well-informed and engaged electorate and the media have an indispensable role to play in ensuring this. While we recognise that the media face various constraints, including resource, technological and time limitations, these findings show how the 2016 municipal elections coverage failed to put citizens and their interests firmly on the agenda. As coverage remained dominated by party campaigning, political leaders and their activities, we still have a long way to go until elections begin to reflect a citizens' agenda.