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We found that Nigerian papers’ coverage of pre-election violence passed muster

A newspaper vendor outside a polling station during the 2011 elections in Nigeria. The Commonwealth/Flickr

Nigeria has a vibrant press media landscape. But freedom of the press is only rated as “partly free” by Freedom House, mostly due to the fact that news media are still susceptible to political pressures. There is also the external influence from ownership structures and the generally low wages of journalists. Favourable reporting of generous politicians remains a fairly common practice.

The extent to which these influences affect the quality of reporting remains insufficiently investigated. To address this gap we analysed how three newspapers with different political affiliations report on conflict in the run-up to the 2015 elections. Electoral violence reporting is particularly sensitive to political biases in the news media.

Our analyses showed that Nigerian news media reported on electoral violence relatively independently from political pressures. This was also supported by interviews with Nigerian media professionals who argued that political pressures lead to changes in editorial policies. But when electoral violence took place, the media “say it as it is”.

Our findings show that Nigerian print media played a crucial role in monitoring violence, and thereby deterring it, given the overall adherence to independent and professional reporting standards – even in the face of political pressures. But to reinforce this role, structural weaknesses – such as as lack of resources – will need to be addressed. This is particularly true during election times.

Without reliable evidence, national and international observers will find it increasingly difficult to make judgements on electoral violence in Nigeria and to denounce parties and candidates. This in turn poses a serious problem for the stability and democratic conduct of future elections in the country.

Similar picture of violence

Our analysis focused on The Nation, The Guardian and This Day.

Our selection of these papers was guided by two principles: firstly we selected newspapers which were affiliated to one of the main political parties contesting the elections – the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC). The second criterion was that the papers had to be relatively national in scope and have a wide readership. This mean that we excluded local, small-scale papers.

We had a major challenge determining affiliation or sympathy towards a party. For one of the papers, The Nation, this was more obvious since its ownership is linked to Tinubu, who is a major APC strongman in the south west region of the country. We selected The Guardian and This Day because, based on extensive consultations, it was fair to conclude that they sometimes had regional sympathies.

We conducted both qualitative as well as quantitative research. The qualitative research involved interviewing 15 Nigerian journalists and editors in Lagos and Abuja.

We examined how events related to conflict were covered by the three papers between April 2014 and March 2015. This was the year leading up to the elections. We recorded coverage of protests, riots, political kidnappings, armed conflict events, and suicide bombings and the actors involved. We then analysed to what extent the three newspapers sketched a different picture of conflict events over time, in particular events involving the two main parties.

We found that all three newspapers painted a similar picture of electoral violence patterns in the run-up to the 2015 elections. The All Progressives’ Congress was consistently more likely to be the victim of violence than the People’s Democratic Party.

As all three newspapers reported this pattern, it was likely to reflect a real trend in society. The discrepancy between events in which the All Progressives’ Congress was a victim of violence and events where the Peoples’ Democratic Party was targeted, was largest for the Nation.

But, overall our analysis indicated that biases in reporting were generally limited, and that while political pressures were real, they were most evident in editorial choices. In other words, decisions such as on which page the report appeared, the length of the article as well as what visuals were used.

Our analyses also revealed a more problematic feature of reporting on violence in Nigeria. But media outlets also lacked resources to conduct independent investigative reporting.

Lack of resources

The papers we looked at mostly depended on statements from political parties themselves. This led to parties using the media to make accusations against one another. For their part, reporters were unable to reveal the real culprits because they didn’t have sufficient resources to do their own investigating and reporting.

From the perspective of balance, accusations and counter-accusations were reported. But the real perpetrators and victims were rarely established or verified independently.

Yet independent verification of political claims is important because it means that journalists can provide context in an environment in which conspiracy theories are rife. The ability to be able to report events on the ground is crucial if the media’s watchdog role is to be sustained, and deepened. That, in turn, needs resources.

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