In a democracy, it is the people who rule. The voice of the people can be heard in the voting booths. The decisions made by the people in the voting booths are informed by information provided primarily by the press. Hence, the press is indispensible to democratic elections. As Liberia gradually moves towards the holding of Presidential and Legislative elections scheduled for October this year, the need for illumination on the role the press plays in democratic election is imperative. It is essential to appreciating the significance of the press in promoting and upholding democracy.
Elections are considered democratic when the choice of who should govern rests directly on the freely given consent of the majority of the adults governed. In order for the people to make a free choice, there must be ample knowledge of the issues, policies and personalities of candidates contesting in the elections.
The press is the function of professional people called journalists who are responsible for the collection, and dissemination of current news and events. This includes news writing, reporting and commentaries in the news media (newspapers, radio, and television). The press must be free in order to allow space for free decision-making based on information it provides. It is therefore obvious that that a free press cannot be government owned. Correspondingly, a free press must be a responsible press that adheres to the principles of its social responsibility. It must be responsible to truth, balanced, fair reporting. A free press must be careful to distinguish between facts and editorial opinion.
Education is the foremost of conditions that quicken and strengthen the democratic process. Education allows for information and critical awareness of the issues and problems of the. When the avenues of communication are open, an educated electorate can become aware of the consequences and costs of past policies and the present alternatives for action. Since the free press is responsible for self-policing, it is best suited for election education. Equal public access to media products ensures equality of educational opportunity which is vital for credible elections.
PUBLIC OPINION and PRE-ELECTION ACTIVITIES
Public opinion is the expressed view of the people about issues of common interest or concern. Public opinion depends to a large extent on freedom of the press and of expression. If communication is difficult or restricted, public opinion is less likely to form or change.
There are varieties of programs that the press can pursue in order to inform its audience during the pre-election time. Firstly, papers and stations can expand coverage of issue-oriented programming. In addition to this, stations could increase their emphasis on commentary and analysis by reporters increasing their coverage of political party positions and by airing comprehensive reports of these positions with or without commentary. These strategies are very essential in having the electorates informed and their interests aroused and subsequently expressed on issues of common good.
There is a host of reasons why voters might rely on the press for information and interpretation during democratic elections. Voters simply rely on the simplification and interpretation inherent in news presentation to clarify candidates’ characteristics, issues, positions and prospects. Voter look to the media to identify which primaries are crucial and which can be ignored.
Viewers, listeners and readers receive their information about elective politics through the media in two forms; advertisement and overt partisan messages as well as news stories generated by journalists who subscribe to a creed of partisan neutrality. In either case, political campaigns are in essence efforts to direct persuasive messages towards a vast electorate in order to maximize the level of supporters on election day. It is widely believed that the most effective means of this persuasive communication is through the press. Rather than constructing directly organizational links to the voters, campaigners rely on media channels to give their candidates raw exposure and to cast them in favorable light.
THE PRESS AND ELECTION CAMPAIGNS
Political organization for electoral competition is a communication process; therefore much of the business of election campaigns involves the press. One aspect of the press’s involvement in democratic election that generates much division of opinion is paid political advertising.
Supporters of paid political advertising on the airwaves and papers argue that it allows a candidate direct access to the electorate. It can be a measure of the freedom of the election itself and of the right of the candidates to get their messages to the voters with few or no restrictions on the setting or the format. It also provides means for challengers to get attention. Incumbents usually have an advantage; being very often the country’s most covered newsmakers. The other side of the coin is that the right to buy air time and space in the papers can help the unknown to become known and the outsider to get a keen look at power.
Opponents of paid political advertising usually complain of the high cost of air time and the likelihood of media managers to provide space for the highest bidders. Many fear that in a bid for more money, the press could compromise its neutrality when packaging information. However, journalists must at all times adhere to the creed of neutrality and balanced reporting. In short, the political parties or candidates can frame their messages to their liking; the press’s role during campaigns is to publish it. This is fair enough.
In conclusion, the press has pivotal roles to play in democratic elections. Paramount amongst its numerous roles is to educate the electorate about the issues, personalities and policies surrounding the elections. Other roles include fostering feedback of public opinion as well as simplifying and interpreting information for better understanding by ordinary voters. Information provided by the press helps to guide the electorate in making informed decision on election day. Without such education, the election will fall short of being democratic because when uninformed people vote, it is tantamount to making blind people to choose colors. Importantly, the press must be free, neutral and responsible in carrying out these roles.