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Covering Elections - A Guide for Journalists

Jul 5, 2005 | News

Edited by Colin James, a senior political journalist and commentator, and published by the New Zealand Journalists Training Organisation (JTO) with the support of the Electoral Commission.

Fourth edition, fully revised, April 2005

ISBN 0-9582058-5-X


A healthy democracy and a free, critical press are richly interdependent.  Indeed, Colin James begins this guide by highlighting the democratic duty that the news media has to voters.  A duty of giving fuller coverage and analysis than news value alone might justify, profiling parties and candidates, and explaining electoral mechanics.  In return for this, and the news media's wider contribution, society values and protects the rights and means for journalists to go about their work.

However, an imbalance is appearing which threatens this symbiotic relationship and marks weakening social cohesion.  New Zealand has begun to experience a trend of falling voter turnout that, if left unchecked, may reflect a society less concerned with upholding democratic traditions and where - as already happens in other democracies - more people do not vote at all than vote for the elected government.

Reasons for not enrolling and voting (or generally taking an interest or getting involved in politics in any way) often centre on:

  • Belief that 'my vote or voice will not make a difference'
  • Feeling of inadequacy in dealing with an unfamiliar electoral process
  • A pay-off from enrolling and voting thought to be neither large nor immediate
  • Lack of understanding of, as well as a disinterest in, politics and learning about it
  • No previous experience of participation
  • Lack of people around them talking politics or participating.

The Electoral Commission believes politicians and parties, electoral agencies, and the news media are all challenged by this growing disengagement.  We need to find and meet the disaffected and non-engaged through gaining their attention, understanding and future participation.  To succeed, this must occur in a context which lets them see politics' relevance to their daily lives, and the ability and ease with which they can participate and have an impact.

We hope that our continuing associations with the Journalists' Training Organisation, the sponsorship of this valuable handbook, and with journalism education generally go someway to helping us all advance this goal and fulfil our respective duties.  We commend (this) website ... to you as a further resource, and welcome your personal contact for further explanation or comment.

Dr Helena Catt
Chief Executive
Electoral Commission


The lie of the land

A democratic duty? / How the electoral system works / Seat allocation / The 5% barrier / Umbrella parties / Independents / Vacancies / A complicated race

The groundrules

Registration of electors / The Maori option / Drawing the boundaries - the Representation Commission / Candidate nominations / What happens on polling day / Advertising and spending

The parties

Fragmentation and dispersal / The political map / The significant parties / Parties' positioning / Selection procedures / Coalition probabilities / Manifestos

Covering the campaign

The phoney war / Candidate selections / Midterm manoeuvring / The campaign proper / Official campaign openings / Policy coverage / The party manifesto / The race (electorates / party vote) / The local campaign / The leaders' campaigns / The Maori seats / Interest groups / Coalitions / Turnout / By-elections / Referendums / Factors in the news / Organising the coverage / Setting the agenda / Setting it in context / Politicians are human / Balance and fairness / Resiting pressure / Forecasting / Some tips / Television / Radio / Major newspapers / Local papers / Other media including new electronic media


Sorts of polls / A checklist for polls' validity / Predictions

Election night and beyond

The election night count / The official count / How seats are allocated / Disputed elections and recounts / Court challenges

Governing after an election

The caretaker government / Coaltion and support talks / When should a coalition deal be made? / Minority government / The Governor-General's reserve powers / Dissolving Parliament / Pressure on bureaucrats

Some confusing terms

Further reading


Distribution and Purchase

The JTO has supplied multiple copies to member organisations, while the Electoral Commission increased its sponsorship in 2005 from that made in earlier years to ensure that all final-year students of journalism education in 2005-7 can receive a copy.

Additional copies may be purchased from the JTO.

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