Commentary: Following the runners
assesses media coverage of Egypt's presidential contest so far
Egypt's presidential elections are receiving an unprecedented level of media coverage, nationally, regionally and worldwide. And little wonder, given that these are the first presidential elections since the 25 January Revolution and the first truly multi-candidate presidential elections in Egyptian history. The Egyptian press has additional incentive for focussing more than ever on the lead-up to the elections, in view of the enormous political, economic, social and security responsibilities that will fall on the next incumbent. Egyptian media outlets are competing intensely to keep the public abreast with the latest developments in the race and the surrounding political scene, and to inform public opinion on the backgrounds of the candidates, their campaign platforms and their plans for addressing a gamut of difficult challenges at home and abroad.
The media's handling of the presidential elections has exhibited some very positive traits. Above all is the amount of airtime they have dedicated to presenting the candidates' campaign programmes, to extensive interviews with the candidates to probe their visions for contending with the problems Egyptian society is facing today, and to covering their campaign rallies and their responses to the latest political developments. Further encouraging signs of health in the media are opinion polls to assess voter trends and potential turnout, in-depth investigatory articles on the candidates and on public perceptions of them, studies attempting to set the agenda for the forthcoming president based on public expectations, the invitation of experts to comment on the diverse electoral platforms, the provisions for live audience participation in programmes on the elections, and the intensive use of social networking websites to stimulate interaction between television programmes and the public.
Another first is that state-run television and radio stations have accorded equal time to each of the candidates to present their views and platforms to the public. In addition, these stations have allocated slots to raising public awareness on the civic duty of voting and discouraging voter apathy. Other media outlets are also keen to give equal airtime to the candidates, if only to avoid accusations of bias.
In the realm of Egyptian satellite television we have seen new types of programmes featuring live debates between candidates that have helped stimulate public interest and allowed viewers to make objective comparisons between the candidates. Some talk shows featuring the candidates have included among their guests noted experts whose questions and comments give solid depth to the exchanges, as well as members of the ordinary public who are invited to air their problems and concerns in order to learn how the candidates would respond to them.
In almost every way, the performance of the national media represents a refreshing breath of freedom from the domination of the former ruling party. This is reflected in higher levels of professionalism in the coverage of presidential campaigns, which in turn confirms how important the independence of the press is to ensuring a professional, competent and robust media.
The performance of the various media in their coverage is being evaluated by the Media Monitoring Committee, a body that is representative of the different media. Already the committee's work appears considerably more serious than it did during the last parliamentary elections.
Media coverage of the presidential elections has not been without some flaws, however. Foremost among them were newspaper and television interviews with prospective candidates before the official nomination procedures opened, giving individuals who had declared early their intention to run a publicity edge over rivals who entered the race later on.
Some media outlets have also been guilty of lapses in professionalism in their coverage of the election. Personal opinion and speculation sometimes crept into ostensibly factual news reports, while campaign publicity sometimes appeared disguised as exploratory articles. Some journalists or broadcasters made offensive remarks about some candidates; others could not conceal their bias in favour of certain candidates; and some evening talk shows failed to ensure balanced representation of the candidates and their supporters.
In addition, some media published the results of opinion polls, mysteriously omitting mention of the agency that conducted the polls and how they were financed. Equally unprofessionally, some television talk shows conducted opinion polls using small viewer samples from social networking sites, yet portraying these limited surveys as though they were representative of the full spread of audience opinion. In like manner, opinion surveys were conducted over the Internet, in spite of the many known shortcomings of these types of polls: not least the unlikeliness that they reflect Egyptian society, and their very low accuracy rates. Apparently, some media professionals are unaware of, or indifferent to, the impact that publishing the results of opinion polls has on public opinion for or against candidates.
Some breaches of journalistic professionalism were related to the inappropriate and even unethical use of new media in covering the presidential elections. Some electronic news websites were guilty of slandering and defaming certain candidates; others made liberal use of religious slogans and symbols to emotionally manipulate their audiences in favour of a particular candidate. On some websites, photos of the candidates were deliberately distorted or disfigured, and not infrequently language and humour exceeded the bounds of propriety and social mores. Also, rumours and falsehoods were published to discredit some candidates and promote others.
It is not too late to apply some of the lessons learned from media coverage of November's parliamentary elections. Above all, it is important to strictly apply on polling day silence across all media and to incorporate new media into the body of media legislation that is intended to ensure the media's social responsibility and its professionalism.
At the same time, it is important to train young media professionals in the means and ethics of sound electoral coverage in the hope of minimising breaches of professional ethics and standards in the future. In addition, efforts should focus more intensively on improving the use of new media for the purposes of campaign propaganda, raising awareness on key issues, and promoting interaction between candidates and their parties and the people in a manner that applies the principles of professional and social responsibility and according to the recommendations issued by the Media Monitoring Committee.
* The writer is professor of mass communication at Cairo University.