Best practices for journalists covering election day

By John Baptist Wasswa

The most critical period of the election process is the voting day, voting counting and the announcement of results. This period is shaped by its history and it has immediate follow-up too. It requires you the journalist to be well prepared professionally, emotionally and physically. Let us look at what you will need to do on that day.

Safety first

The journalist must take all necessary precautions to stay safe from both potential troublemakers and security personnel who might become over-zealous. Safety involves knowledge of the regulations put in place and the laws that govern the specific elections you are going to cover.

  • What has the Electoral Commission directed?
  • What guidelines have the Police and perhaps joint security team put in place?
  • How are you going to navigate hurdles to get the story?

Know your area of coverage and do not scatter

Newsroom planning should provide for a journalist to cover a specific geographical area and for journalists to work as a team. If possible, stringers can be co-opted to join the newsroom regulars to widen the areas of coverage. 

You must know your area thoroughly:

  • At each polling centre you are covering, what are voting populations? This information is now available on the Electoral Commission website and many serious media organisations already have this information. 
  • How many voters?
  • Please note that this time there are no voters’ cards. The individual’s National Identity Card or Voter Location Slip will be the voter’s card. 
  • Know the procedures and the candidates for all levels of that voting day. For instance on January 14th, 2021, voting will be for presidential candidates, directly elected MPs and Women MPs to represent the district. Part from the presidential candidates, you should know all the other candidates by all their names, parties or otherwise, colours and symbols. Your newsroom should have small size posters of all these candidates for easy reference and accuracy of spellings.
  • Know the geography, possible escape routes in case of trouble and where you can take cover. Establish a possible meeting point with your colleagues in the same area, in case there is trouble.
  • Be properly identifiable with cards, branded jackets and not in colours that resemble any party colours. Best if you are in white, brown, or black. Those are safe. Be neutral and do not identify with any parties.

Observe, Observe

You should take a big note pad so that you can write elaborate notes. This is a one-in-five years exercise. It is not enough to depend on your phone to take pictures and recordings. Write down:

  • What you see: the normal and the unusual
  • Voter turn up: you may observe but you will ask the election officials what the turn up was in percentage terms.
  • The drama, the emotions, long queues, some of important comments.
  • Know by name the returning officer and agents of major candidates, they will have name tags. Names are important when you are writing your story.
  • Observe the security situation; how people are adhering or otherwise to the security arrangements. Observe if there is any violence and how it is contained.
  • Look out for how SOPs against COVID-19 are observed. Hand-washing, social distancing, sanitizing, 
  • Observe the start of the polling and the procedures for transparency. Note the effectiveness and efficiency of the operation, the voting equipment and if the materials arrive in time and the voting starts of time. These are critical elements you should not leave to hearsay. If there any delays, ask the election officials the reason.
  • Your story will be full of description, full of facts and colour at the same time. If you are reporting for broadcast, you may also have to keep reminding the audience the regulations, the SOPs, the dos and don’ts at a polling centre. This is part of your professional responsibility of giving information.

There will be a lot of excitement and activity towards the close of polling.  You should observe every step and action during the counting of votes.

  • What time does voting end, and counting of votes start?  Does the counting follow the correct procedure? How transparent is the system? Can people take pictures? Are phones allowed? 
  • Knowledge of the official procedure will help you notice unusual activity.

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