What is the impact of partisan balance in the news media during elections in democracies and societies in transition? This book chapter from the World Bank examines the impact of balance and bias in the news media on public opinions, political behaviour and, ultimately, on election outcomes. Drawing on case studies of recent elections in Kenya, Russia, Mexico and Turkey, it argues that the media, particularly television, plays a key role in influencing election processes.
The issue of balance is central to discussions on the role and responsibilities of the news media during elections. While the concept of balance is difficult to define, claims of political bias are based on the assumption that the news media should adopt a balanced approach towards contending parties during electoral campaigns. The principle of balance, if strictly followed, is contrary to the journalistic principle of objectivity, which normally determines story selection. In established democracies, balance is assessed through two main concepts, namely visibility and valence (which refers to the tone of coverage), however, it is difficult to apply these concepts in post-conflict and transitional societies due to the low level of established political parties.
Political bias in the news media is an especially important issue in countries undergoing transition from autocratic to democratic rule. Where a dominant party exists, for example, bias may make it difficult for opposition parties and reform movements to convey their message to citizens and to mobilise voters.
Case studies on the role of the media in recent elections in Kenya, Russia, Mexico and Turkey point to the following key findings:
- Television is the preferred news medium of political actors during election campaigns and plays an important role in the coverage of elections.
- In Kenya, television news reporting was perceived as imbalanced during the election campaign in 2007 and may have contributed to inflaming ethnic violence that broke out in the aftermath of those elections.
- In Russia, there is evidence of a strong bias in the state-controlled television news during elections. However, voters and citizens continue to trust the state-run media in Russia despite this bias in reporting.
- Mexico and Turkey seem to have the right conditions in place to monitor and assess the role of the media during elections (such as national research teams, and a growing community of scholars), as well as media content analysis of campaign news.
- Research is currently underway in Mexico and Turkey on the role of media coverage during the recent elections, as well as its impact on electoral behaviour and election outcomes.
The consequences of political bias in news media – such as a problematic electoral campaigns and contested election outcomes – may have profound and lasting effects on national economies and national political consciousness. Key considerations for donors and policy-makers include:
- Promoting and enhancing media literacy skills among all citizens before, during and after elections.
- Engaging in the systematic monitoring and measurement of media coverage that allows for comparisons in real-time during election campaigns.
- Establishing and reinforcing national election studies to ensure the systematic collection of verifiable and independent survey data throughout electoral campaigns.
- Supporting technical assistance to build capacity in efforts to study the impact of partisan balance and bias in the media on public opinion and political behaviour during elections.