Covering elections

Ensuring the right to vote

Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rightsand Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights enshrine the principle of the right of citizens to vote for their governments through elections that are free and fair.

Most countries have laws and regulations about what media may and may not do during elections. Mostly, the laws and regulations try to ensure that coverage of the different political parties is fair and balanced.

Guidelines for covering elections

UDHR Article 21

  1. Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
  2. Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
  3. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Be fair:

  • Strive to provide equal coverage of each candidate and issue.
  • Place politicians’ remarks in context. Quote sources accurately.
  • Avoid words and descriptions that convey bias.

In reporting elections:

  • Go beyond routine coverage of press conferences, speeches and rallies.
  • Cover the issues as well as the candidates.
  • When an issue is under debate, do your own research and call on neutral experts to explain the facts as opposed to claims of supporters or opponents.
  • In the case of a candidate, do the research that will allow you to ask tough questions.
  • If the candidate makes an error in fact, give him or her chance to explain, but inform your readers of the mistake.
  • Use multiple sources, supporters, opponents and experts. Give readers the information to predict what the candidate might do in office and what concrete change will happen if a ballot issue is approved.
  • Follow the money: Identify who is supporting the candidate or issue financially and why. What policies are they promoting? What potential conflicts of interest do they have (the desire for government contracts on a project the candidate promotes, etc.)? Identify NGOs that track campaign finance spending and adherence to election laws: they may be able to provide you with valuable information.
  • Inform the readers of the political affiliations of those you quote.

The numbers:

  • Be skeptical of polls. Determine who sponsored them; whether the questions were worded to encourage certain responses, whether the sample size is adequate and reflects voter demographics. Explain polling methods and accuracy rating to readers.
  • Don’t trust candidates’ crowd estimates. Ask police or other official sources. Better yet, estimate it yourself using the Jacobs method if you were there.
  • Don’t trust candidates’ claims about government budgets or other financial information. Verify their arithmetic.

Source: Adapted from guidelines by the International Center for Journalists

Estimating Crowd Size

The Jacobs method for estimating crowd size was developed in 1960 by Herbert Jacobs, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley. It yields only a rough estimate but allows journalists who do not have access to helicopters or aerial photographs to approximate crowd size themselves.

Determine the density of the crowd:

  1. A loose crowd, where each person is at arm’s length from the next person, gives each person about 10 square feet (0.93 m2) of space.
    • A tight crowd, where people are more tightly packed but still have room to move around, gives each person about 4.5 square feet (0.42 m2) of space.
    • A mob-like crowd, in which people may have difficulty even turning around, gives each person about 2.5 square feet (0.23 m2) of space.
  2. Determine the amount of space (in square feet or meters) occupied by the crowd.
  3. Divide the total area by the estimated number of square feet/meters occupied by each person.