17 May 2019

How to cover a Federal election: the nuts and bolts of balancing journalism

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Covering an election fairly depends on the politicians too. Photo: AEC.

When the election was called, Region Media wanted to play a straight bat and to report the election as fairly as possible on the basis of news and general interest. So with the election upon us, it’s time to expose the inner workings of election coverage and to show you the full democracy sausage stuffing.

Even-handed coverage is not as easy as it sounds to achieve because it depends entirely on politicians’ willingness to co-operate. It’s in their interests to get the strongest coverage closest to the election date. Sometimes they’ll game the system by refusing to participate until the last minute, then claiming their share of coverage.

Or they just don’t co-operate at all, and that leaves the media with a problem. You can’t halt election coverage but if you leave out a major contender, readers assume you’re engineering the situation to benefit someone (you’re usually OK if the complaints about being a Labor plant or a Liberal stooge balance each other out).

So we kept a tally of how many stories appeared but also how often we made requests. For what it’s worth, it’s roughly even if you count the major parties and group the independents.

But here’s where national strategy emerges: Federal Labor has a big policy plan that’s selling Bill Shorten as a team leader. That means plenty of detail and visibility for all candidates.

The Liberals have opted for a small-target, presidential approach that focuses on Scott Morrison and tight messaging. Since the PM has neither spent time here nor made many Canberra-specific major funding promises, there’s not so much to talk about locally.

Interviewing lower house candidates gave us a good sense of how the parties are campaigning. Local Liberals, Labor and Greens organisers were co-operative and helpful with this, probably because everyone needs a visibility boost.

Interviews were frank, cheerful and pleasant and I also spoke to some independents. One Liberal asked to record our interview, another put me on speaker phone (potentially so somebody else could hear the conversation?). These aren’t unusual requests and since I was asking everyone the same questions, I wasn’t concerned.

The real race is in the Senate with the arrival of a well funded, independent candidate in Anthony Pesec, hoping to capitalise on disaffected Liberals. Both Greens and Labor also provided their lead candidates, Dr Penny Kyburz and Katy Gallagher, for interviews early on.

I rang Senator Seselja’s office on February 27, and emailed the same day, then again on April 1 (then spent three weeks on leave). I emailed again on May 8 (all without response) and again on May 13. We made a direct request through personal channels and I also asked him to speak to me at the Canberra Business Chamber’s budget breakfast.

I even asked volunteers handing out the how-to-vote cards at pre-polling booths to pass the message on to party organisers that we really wanted to talk to him.

Preferring a free-ranging interview, I also offered him the chance to run an opinion piece (an opportunity we also gave to Andrew Leigh as the other sitting member). This approach worked and Senator Seselja’s piece appeared this week.

This wasn’t a surprise: press gallery colleagues report similar difficulties flushing out any government ministers about anything. Despite my years in the Canberra media, I’ve only spoken to Senator Seselja a handful of times despite many, many more requests in his current and past roles.

I also attempted to contact Glen Hodgson for the UAP in Fenner but those phone numbers in Clive Palmer’s advertising buyout apparently don’t connect with anyone.

RiotACT can be a vigorous place to interact, with a wide range of community opinions. But we also regularly clock 300,000 unique visitors each month, with a focus on local issues and a team of local journalists.

Our active social media presence provides a good sense of what’s firing up the voters and we know that our demographic is a broad central slice of Canberra. Strong responses here indicate that a pollie should be paying attention to an issue at the very least.

Thanks to all the politicians, both elected and putative, who engaged with RiotACT over the past six weeks as I spoke with 14 candidates. On Saturday night RiotACT will provide comprehensive completely local election coverage direct to your device however you engage with us.

Roll on, democracy, and roll on a free, independent and local media as part of that process.

To view our full coverage of the 2019 election, click here.

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Doesn’t matter who wins tonight, my hip pocket will be forever lighter from tomorrow

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