In the recently concluded elections, the fates of the various political players were known. Here, the role of media in reporting the state elections is being discussed.
Elections in India
Unlike the United States, India does not have official midterm elections where voters get to reiterate or negate the verdicts they gave. In any case, it has been noted that people vote differently in Lok Sabha and Assembly polls in India but these elections in five states spread across the country including the massive Uttar Pradesh was a crucial phase for central government. Hence, there is need to review how the media has covered the elections over the last two months.
Media coverage of elections
There are certain norms about how to cover issues, how paid news is to be controlled, how to cover incidents about terrorism, how to be fair and impartial in election coverage etc. But all that is normally ignored or less adhered to in realty. Media, particularly the television media, is affecting the standards of journalism in India. It is very difficult actually today to differentiate between one and another. All of them are competing with each other to garner maximum TRPs and views with hardly any important and relevant journalism at foray.
It is a matter of analysis but every time there are elections, interest in media rarely goes up. There is lot of coverage and stories canvassed but under the venire of interesting coverage, there is business as usual going on.
Many of these media houses are controlled either directly or indirectly by some of the political parties themselves so it becomes really difficult to be fair while covering elections. But it can be seen in another way. Covering elections is very hard. There is extensive travelling in big states like UP and in complex small states like Punjab and Uttarakhand. Even if journalists are not trying to say who’s winning, it is their job to reflect the mood of the crowd. Gauging the mood of the ground by the media is not very easy. So the journalists are accused of bias because if they write X is winning, Supporters Y say they are bias and paid media and trying to campaign for somebody and not just cover it.
If the sense was given that Jats in west UP are moving away from BJP, BJP is unhappy. In 3rd phase, in central Awadh and Bundlekhand region, it is written that SP is not doing well, they will say that journalists started campaigning for BJP and switch sides. If BSP is picking up in west UP is written, supporters of parties say that media is singing another tune. But it has to be understood that the seven phases of UP elections were like seven states. Goa has population less than Delhi, UP has population as same as Brazil or Pakistan. So, when covering such different states, there is lot to criticize the media but very few understand how it works.
The media being compromised is one thing but media being under pressure of money is getting bigger. Today, Paid news has become the new normal and the rates have increased. There was SC order on curb on self-congratulations and laudatory advertisements given by politicians at the cost of the exchequer and taxpayers’ money. But it continues to be sprawling. This has also increased the selective advertising- news is given to certain papers and not given to certain other papers also leads to newspapers being called biased in their approach.
Need change in media attitude
The way UP, Punjab, Goa and Uttarakhand have been covered is a significant scale up from the approach of covering elections in the past. But the national media still ignores states like Manipur where a lot could have been written about the state.
With regards to election content, one clear trend that has emerged in election and in the media is that 70-80% of the reportage has happened around the leaders and their rallies. And not around issues and concerns that affect these states.
Before election started, there was a survey in UP to find top issues that mattered to UP electorate. They were people are scared of venturing out of their house after 5pm, corruption is still endemic in police and land sectors. There was no media or any political leader take up this issue.
Here, media could have probably done a little more or more focused in reporting issues rather than on who said what about whom, what mechanisms are going on, what alliances are working out and how they impact the outcome.
The regional media, the Indian languages media in all states have actually done a better job. They have done constituency wide coverage and they have focused on constituency level issues. This is completely missing from the English language media.
The journalist at the end of the day has the responsibility to paint the right picture and not a rosy picture. The issues have not come to the fore in some of the states and instead campaigns and rallies were given front page headlines and TV prime time.
Managing the media
Today’s election is a form of art, science and management. There are impression managers and war room managers where people do minute-to-minute strategies which contemplates how to make the party and its leaders capture maximum time in media. There is lot less coverage on voters and what they are saying and more on the political parties and their leaders. Lot of Hindi channels and newspapers have been campaigning for one or another party where non-issue is exaggerated and important ones are ignored to avoid any hitback.
In case of Dainik Jagran website, it put out an exit poll in middle of elections which is against the law. Though it was removed from website, its content was circulated all along UP saying BJP is winning. The role of some particular Hindi newspapers and channels thus is unfortunate and needs introspection.
How to improve reportage?
There is scope for improvement when the existing problems are acknowledged. The role of universities, think tanks, research institutions is important here. They should identify the problems, talk about the problems, talk about preferential treatment and also point out the continuously left out news. For instance, there were news of acquittal of accused in earlier bomb blast case but it was omitted from reporting by the media.
There exists an alternative media, the social media. With its help, citizens of voting states could do a lot in terms of data, fact checking, documenting the election around them etc. People need to realise that they are media today. The shortcomings of mainstream media can be addressed by them by using social media.
Journalists need to read more for the states they are covering, collect factually correct data, make sustainable explanations for what a leader said and why rather than just reporting. Doing more homework while covering elections will give ingenuity to the process of reportage.
During every election season, political parties making promises and then coming to power. The journalists should hold these political parties accountable to whether or not the promises have been fulfilled and bring out those kind of issues to fore every time there is an election. The interest in elections have spiked significantly in recent years. The technology that is at disposal today, the multiple platforms that have been catered to which means that media can cover news in different ways today.
The challenges that media faces in India the democracy is not unique. Similar challenges are faced elsewhere also by media and media learns and evolves. Media can contribute to setting agendas for election of how nation’s politics shapes up or has choice of looking the other way or be a party to how things are going from bad to worse.
The media can do an important task of fact checking. Leaders say what they want to say and make promises. It will be the media which can dish out the truth from the electoral promises. These are the things which can make opinion and lead to better decision making by the electorates.
Connecting the dots:
What is the role of media while covering elections in India? Should there be censorship on media coverage during elections? Critically analyse.