In this chapter, we discuss some of the ethical issues in reporting on politics and we look at some of the skills you need to be a good political reporter, especially how to gather information. In the next chapter we discuss how to write in an informed way which your readers or listeners can understand.
Politics is a big area which provides a very large part of the media's diet of news. Politics is about relationships within and between societies, about the use of power and authority, and about the government of countries or communities. For journalists, politics can range from stories about individuals competing for power in minor organisations to nation competing against nation in international affairs.
It is difficult to define where politics ends and government begins - or even if there is a dividing line. In this and the following chapter, we will look at the ways of reporting power struggles as news, at the coverage of elections, and at government - the practical application of politics.
Principles of political reporting
The most important thing to remember about politics is that it involves people. It involves the politicians who make decisions, the public servants who carry out their orders and - most important - the people affected by their actions. Your job as a journalist is to serve the people affected, to explain how the decisions will affect their lives. You should also give them knowledge they need to take part in debates and vote for the people who will serve them best. You should not be writing for the politicians or public servants concerned in particular issues; they should know already what is going on. Whenever you report on any political story, always ask yourself: "How will it affect my readers' or listeners' lives?"
There is a further reason for reporting politics. If you tell the people what is happening, they can give their reactions to it. They can write letters to the editor, give their opinions in vox pops or express their feelings directly to the politicians and public servants themselves. In this way, those in power know what the people they are governing think. This is important in any democracy.
Explain events and issues
One of your main tasks as a journalist is to explain events and issues in a way your readers or listeners can understand. If you only report what happens or what is said, you will give your readers or listeners a fragmented picture of the world. They also need to know how and why things happen. Your stories must always put events and issues in context, showing how they affect people.
Explanations do not have to be long descriptions. It can often be done in one or two sentences. In the following example, we explain why it is significant that Parliament has extended its sitting to debate a finance bill:
Parliament is to sit for an extra day, to complete debate on a bill to introduce deep sea fishing licences.
The Government wants the Fishery Control Bill passed this session, in order to raise revenue.
Fisheries Minister Alva Maifu hopes that the licensing system will raise more than $1 million.
If the bill is not passed by Parliament tomorrow, it will have to wait for the next session in three months time.
Such explanations are particularly important in politics, where there is often a lot of debate and dealing in the background before decisions are reached which affect the lives of your readers or listeners. The change of one key person in a political structure may alter the whole nature of that structure and, as a result, change the lives of your readers or listeners.
Explanation not advice
There is an important difference between explaining events and giving advice on how to alter situations. Explanation is clearly one role of the journalist. Leave the political activist or the expert in that field to give advice. Your job as a journalist is to report different opinions, not to judge them. Be objective.
For example, while you should report that your country has signed a new trade treaty with Japan, and explain what it will mean for imports, exports, prices and jobs, you should not give your personal opinion on whether you think the treaty is a good or a bad thing. Your job is to tell the news, put it in context, report some expert opinion - and leave your audience to make up their own minds (see Chapter 56: Facts and opinion).
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Know your audience
As with any area of news, it is important that you know your readers or listeners. You can then adapt your news-telling style to their general level of interest and understanding, remembering always that you should aim to inform the less-educated members of your audience as well as the educated ones.
It is worth adding here that some societies or communities are more "political" than others. By this we mean that they see politics at work in issues more often than the members of some other communities.
An awareness of the general level of political consciousness in your community will help you to determine which issues you need to cover - and how.
Do not confuse your community's general level of political consciousness with your own interest in political affairs, which might be greater because you work in the media. If readers or listeners are not interested in politics, you should not force them. However, even a lack of interest in politics should not cut them off from receiving news of a political nature about things which affect their lives.
For example, your readers or listeners may have little interest in debates in parliament over transport policy. However, if the debate ends in a decision to increase bus fares by 20 percent, you must tell them this.
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It may seem obvious, but remember that you cannot believe everything you are told in politics. Always be suspicious about what people say, especially when they make promises or boast about their achievements.
When a politician or political activist speaks just to appear good (or to keep in the public eye for the next election), you should treat what they say as personal advertising.
When they speak on a current issue, you should ask whether their comments add to the people's understanding of the issue. If they do, that is news. If they do not, that is just personal advertising.
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Cultivate sources and contacts
Even though you may be suspicious of the motives of politicians, you should still try to make a wide range of contacts among them. You may need to put aside your personal dislike for a politician or his philosophy. You should judge politicians you dislike in the same way as you judge those you admire. Whenever they speak on an issue, you must ask:
- Do they have the power to do anything practical about what they are saying? Can they change words into deeds?
- Are they influential in shaping opinion?
- Does their specific comment increase your audience's understanding of the issue?
If the answer is "yes" to any of the above, they may be worth reporting.
On a practical level, even politicians you personally dislike will give you stories if they believe that you will treat them fairly.
Politicians in opposition often provide useful information about abuses by those in power. Both you and they are there to monitor the performance of the rulers, whether national or local.
You may, of course, be working in a country where confrontation is not encouraged in politics. In some countries, politicians not in power are meant to support the leaders, not oppose them. Everyone is urged to work together to achieve certain national goals. Even in situations such as these, criticism is usually allowed as long as its aim is to suggest improvements to the system, not simply to oppose it on ideological grounds.
In most political systems, the leaders and the people try to work together to improve their society. They can do this by exchanging views. Try to keep a balance between reporting the achievements of the powerful and reporting the concerns of the powerless.
Because political reporters have to deal with both sides in an argument, you have a duty to respect the confidentiality of sources - you must keep any promises you give to keep certain information to yourself. For example, you should not tell an interviewee what you have just learned in confidence from their opponent unless you know that the opponent will not mind. If people feel that they can talk in confidence to you, they will often give you plenty of material, both on and off the record. On the record comments can be reported. Off the record comments are usually given on agreement that they will not be reported. (For more details, see Chapters 59 and 60 on sources of information.)
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Know your subject
Knowing your subject and being properly prepared is vital in all fields of journalism. Before you do any interview, you need to know something about the issue, its latest developments and history; the interviewee's background and politics; and the political system applicable to the issue. It could, for example, be pointless interviewing a local council leader about defence policy when defence is a central government responsibility. Equally, it could be embarrassing to ask a person why he opposes a measure when, in fact, he supports it in principle.
Always try to prepare some searching questions. Some stories will demand a very critical approach, others may only need a clear explanation and some questions to make some points clearer.
You must always pursue a line of questioning until you get an answer that will satisfy your readers or listeners. They cannot ask the party leader, association chairman or minister directly, so your readers or listeners rely on you to know what kind of questions they want answering. You may think you already know the answers, but the purpose of journalism is not to educate you. You exist as a journalist to inform your readers or listeners, so keep asking questions until you are sure that they will be satisfied with the answers.
It is important that you keep up-to-date records of any changes in government structures or political office. Whenever you write a story about any political or government changes, also make the necessary changes in the newsroom reference file. For example, if there is a cabinet reshuffle, get a full list of the new ministers and put it in the newsdesk file. Regularly update your files and check contact numbers.
Tell your readers or listeners how political decisions will affect their lives
Your job is to report different opinions, not to judge them; be objective
Cultivate a wide range of contacts
This is the end of the first part of this two-part section on reporting politics. If you now want to read on, follow this link to the second section, Chapter 28: Writing about politics
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