By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan
One glaring similarity between the United States and Philippine elections is the field day of media organizations (television in particular) especially on election day.
Indeed, elections are when the media pull out all the stops in delivering live updates and showcasing the latest broadcast technology.
People look forward to elections that they become the best times to showcase a network’s capabilities, said ABS-CBN News Production chief Cheryl Favila.
“The results are there, but next to that is how the networks present their election stories… how we can make our presentation better for our viewers,“ she said.
The 2010 elections, for instance, are also remembered for tech terms like augmented reality that spiced the viewing experiences of Filipinos.
It recalled the 2008 US elections, when CNN first unveiled the hologram effect as a means of interacting with reporters on the field.
The US election coverage clearly was not readied in just a few months, Favila said.
“Probably at the very least a year, so that they get the perfect graphics, they get the perfect location, and at the same time, they were prepared with analysis,” she said.
Coverage of the US polls has also been compared with ours for their speed in calling results, the ease of reporting on just two major parties, the greater focus on issues, and the increase in interactivity.
Some of those traits are inextricably linked to the US political system. Others to the pace of technology.
With midterm polls coming next year, a rundown of the traits may elicit a second look at how elections are covered in the Philippines.
Some coverage elements, however, might take more than just programming decisions to change. And whether practices should be altered or adapted is still subject to judgment.
Long before holograms and “magic walls” (CNN’s touch screen apparatus), speed also defined US election coverage.
Before Americans went to bed, they could know which candidate would win.
Filipinos only got a taste of quicker election counting in 2010 with poll automation, but that merely shortened months of tallying to days.
The relief brought here by the reduction of counting time was actually a contrast to the reaction in the US in 1960. The year was a landmark for revealing the impact of television on a campaign and election.
Since there are no federal poll bodies–only election officers per county and per state–collecting and combining the count from all 50 states involved the media.
Before, file cards collated the data. Then in 1960, TV network NBC first introduced computers–the big mainframe precursors that filled rooms.
In his memoirs, the late NBC News anchor David Brinkley wrote that Americans first spurned the development.
Viewers used to family get-togethers watching results arrive slowly complained that the networks “have taken the fun out of election nights,” Brinkley wrote.
No one complained about accuracy, he said. Politicians either feared the invisible nature of the count or felt that by allegedly calling winners before polls could close in other areas of the US, the networks were rigging the election.
Brinkley’s justification for the technology echoes his counterparts in the media today: “We do it because we can do it.” (emphasis his)
“Our only service, actually, is to count the votes and announce the winners faster than the states can do it,” he said.
With few “scoops” available on election night, Brinkley wrote: “What is useful and worth the expense and effort is to bring in the election figures early while people are still awake and to put them on the screen clearly, legibly, and in some pleasing and understandable form.”
The tight 1960 race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was called the next morning.
The speed by which the US TV networks call the elections is based on lots of data: exit polls, voter profiles, preferences, the number of registered Republicans and Democrats, past voting behavior, and opinion surveys.
Computers crunch them with incoming numbers of the actual vote count, and analysts compare the trends before “calling” which candidate wins the state.
“If they know how a voter is going to vote, then if he’s there, without counting the actual ballot, they know which candidate will gain votes,” James Jimenez, Commission on Elections information director, told ANC’s Road to 2013. He observed the US polls this year.
After states are won, projecting who wins the White House is even easier, thanks to the electoral college. This system allots each state a number of votes depending on its population and almost equal to its number of Congress representatives.
The candidate that wins the state usually gets all its electoral votes. A candidate then needs 270 of the 358 electoral votes.
Projections were enough to make Mitt Romney concede to Pres. Obama.
“This says so much about America’s faith in news media, and faith in their election system,” said ANC news manager Francis Toral.
Philippine elections rely on the popular vote (millions versus electoral hundreds), and so national winners are called unless nearly all the votes are counted.
Local TV stations stage their own quick counts with IT partners, but are hardly taken officially. Some local projections have even been accused of setting the agenda for electoral fraud. So long as results are tagged “partial and unofficial,” nothing is still set in stone.
Faster counting did produce a trend in 2010. Presidential hopefuls, seeing the direction of votes toward then Sen. Benigno S. Aquino III, conceded way before the Comelec officially declared Aquino the winner.
“It is really not possible to count votes any faster than the American people cast them,” Brinkley wrote. And the Philippine media could only go as fast as the Comelec delivers results.
Currently, exit polls are the means for local TV networks like ABS-CBN to predict voting, said ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs head Ging Reyes.
“The availability of data (in the US) was just incredible,” Reyes said. “Now that elections are automated, we need a lot, lot more data to be able to independently project results and call races.”
Parties and issues
Looking at the campaign, Cheryl Favila noted that the race between only two parties enabled the media to focus their coverage on issues.
“The moment that you only have two parties… it’s easier even for the media to give analysis considering that you know what their respective platforms are,” she said.
The US’s two-party system has been contrasted with the Philippines’ multi-party democracy, with its party-hopping and politics of personality.
Comelec’s James Jimenez, in his ANC interview, however, revealed worries in the US about the system’s inclusiveness.
There are also smaller parties, but not all ballots include them. Their candidates also need to gain a certain number of votes in the preliminary elections to join the big debates.
Logistically, fewer parties could mean more resources devoted by the media for in-depth reporting, rather than being spread out to follow multiple candidates around. Televised debate time could also be maximized.
The deciding factors of the US election were the issues, and the clear-cut stances of the parties–as presented by the US media–helped them gain or lose voters.
Is it possible in the Philippines?
Observing years of election coverage, Cheryl Favila said: “Pinoys would still go for candidates they recall more, if they see them as good people or people who can do something for their families or communities, versus the actual platforms.”
Mudslinging stories and performance-driven sorties have been a feature of Philippine campaigns, but seem absent when viewing the US elections from afar.
“I wouldn’t say that those things aren’t present here because they were too,” said ABS-CBN North America news bureau chief Nadia Trinidad, who covered the US polls for the first time.
The 2012 US campaign trail featured candidates’ blunders and negative TV advertisements. From Big Bird to “Romney-sia”, gaffes of presidential aspirants filled airtime and stirred social media.
The elections have even been dubbed one of the most negative in ad messages, with nearly 90 percent of ad spending from both parties focused on attacks.
“But the difference is, a more educated electorate was able to transcend all of that,” Trinidad said.
Voters discussed issues crucial to them in town hall meetings and online: unemployment, the economy, and for Filipino-Americans, immigration reform.
Clout and name-recall aside, there may be a chance for the upcoming Philippine elections to also highlight issues.
Senatorial candidates will not be running based on their support or opposition to the administration–the first time in a decade.
Plus, the currency of controversial legislation like the RH bill, the Sin Tax bill, the Freedom of Information bill, and the Cybercrime Act would provide ready points for debate.
It would be the local media’s duty to extract the candidates’ stands on them, and other issues closer to the heart of Filipinos.
The proliferation of those issues among voters would also be helped by the surge of another platform–social media.
- The Pinoy media and the US elections (pinoyjourn.wordpress.com)