Media under scanner

COVERAGE OF STATE POLLS

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an election rally ahead of the state Assembly elections, in Nagaur on November 28, 2018. Twitter Photo via PTI

The watershed elections in five states have just ended and the new governments have taken charge. All eyes were specially glued to the three BJP governed states of Hindi heartland — Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh — all of which were lost by the BJP.

How did the media cover these elections? The poll coverage sadly reflected a low point of electioneering with barbs as ‘Congress ki Vidhva’ by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ‘Moti Vasundhara’ by Sharad Yadav, and ‘Dalit Hanuman’ by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath getting far more media
glare than election manifestos and competing promises versus actions of the leading parties.

No media questioned Congress president Rahul Gandhi on his spate of soft Hindutva steps from ‘janeudhari Shivbhakt’ to gomutra medicines for health cure, or Modi on attempts to shift focus from performance of his party’s three state governments to Pakistan, gotra of Rahul, Nehru’s failures, and Sonia’s corruption. It was glaringly a negative campaign by the parties, reflected even more negatively by the media.

Further, on the issue of leadership in both parties in these three states, media did not critically examine the leadership role of the three incumbent chief ministers in general, and also did not do a comparative study through a SWOT analysis of the leading faces of Congress in the state leadership of these three Hindi heartland states.

Some attempt towards that comparative study was seen only after the results were out and the states were faced with real-life situation of appointing a CM in these three states from Congress.

While most media reported about the widespread agrarian crisis and joblessness in these states, certain issues were swept under the carpet. The extreme agony of demonetisation in rural economy in the hinterland and challenges of multi-layered GST for the small businesses of these states went virtually unreported. The state oppression through police and paramilitary forces on tribal civilians in Chattisgarh hardly received any media glare.

And even in agrarian crisis, except for two in-depth reports by Mint and Firstpost, this commentator did not come across any other authentic study with facts and figures. Surely, the print media in general, and a few stand-alone cyber media outlets, did in-depth reporting than the television channels.

Even opinion and exit polls had moved topsy-turvy. The figures widely varied. While most channels were clear from the start on possible results in Rajasthan, there were wide variations within media houses on MP and Chattisgarh. Times Now and Republic TV came out with two exit polls, showing just the reverse outcome through their exit polls, which made a mockery of their desperation to remain floating and relevant whichever course the actual results take.

And, in spite of two dozens of opinion and exit polls, not a single one could actually predict the complete washout of BJP in Chattisgarh. Most under-estimated the power of Ajit Jogi-led alliance and presumed that it will harm the Congress while the opposite has actually happened. BJP lost most of its SC-ST seats due to the rise of the last front.

Comparative issues of the two groups, campaign style and approach, leadership roles, et al, though taken up sporadically, but did not become crux of poll coverage. The fact that manifestos were announced same day or just a day or two of the polls, but were not questioned by the media. Mizoram was covered more in its absence and Telangana had a KCR stamp all throughout except during the last phase.

Faces, not issues dominated the narrative. Personality fixation of television media once again showed in full capacity with a lot of airtime devoted to Adityanath’s failed campaign, then MP CM Shivraj Singh’s aborted statewide yatra, PM’s last-minute election blitzkrieg, Rahul Gandhi’s temple-tour, Sachin versus Gehlot trivia, decoding Digvijay Singh’s silence in MP etc.

On the other hand, the four faces of probable Congress CM in Chhattisgarh — TS Singh Deo, Bhupesh Baghel, Tamradhwaj Sahu and Charandas Mahant — were hardly known or profiled in the media except again in print. Even during exit polls and results debates, the specific issues of the states got less focus than the possible impact of the states in the national elections in mid-2019. The national media’s obsession with anything national at the cost of the regional and provincial interests was writ large on the coverage content.

Pro-BJP picture

While most TV channels were much chastened on the results day, one could see desperate attempts by some of the channels to paint initially a pro-BJP picture, and later a sympathetic colour to the BJP’s loss in the three states, albeit one with a whisker.

While CPM got two seats in Rajasthan and one in MP, Bharatiya Tribal Party got two in Chhattisgarh, BSP got many more in the three states, SP got one in Rajasthan and MP, AAP got around 6 lakh votes across three states and Gondwana Party got two seats in MP, no TV media mentioned these and limited coverage in print, except in Indian Express and The Telegraph. The common media habit of brushing every non-BJP non-Congress win as others makes the analysis sweeping and rudimentary.

While many print media balanced among the two major contesting parties, and gave some limited space to the others, television airtime was by and large dominated by BJP contrary to the results and others had a grudging presence, some vanishing from the screen totally.

Diversity and variegated ways of story-telling going beyond campaign trail, interviews and fight of the day would be needed to make media coverage of elections productive, incisive and participative, going ahead. People’s issues, voices, and anguish need to come out more. That is engaging and broadens the scope of the coverage too.

The last parliamentary election in 2014 was TV dominated. The social media may take the cake away in 2019. And print may go deeper and into the hinterland and show the other two what can and need to be done to make Indian democracy come out resplendent in public domain and debates.

(The writer is Dean, Pearl Academy School of Media)

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