The biggest reality show for our news media has begun: coverage of the next general election. Across media, you read or watch news about the April-May elections, candidates and possible winners and losers. There is the inevitable number crunching, speculation about political formations taking shape and who will form the next government.
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Coverage of politics, especially elections, has been a hot favourite of the Indian media. However, the graph shows how overall domination of all political news in television news channels has declined since the last parliamentary polls in 2004. That year, it is estimated that an average 31% of prime time was devoted to political news, including elections.
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Since the last general election, coverage priorities and newsworthiness have been redefined by increasing competition among news channels. In the last two years (2007 and 2008) the coverage of political news declined to around 10% as sports and entertainment gained in prominence during prime time. However, the average time devoted to political coverage in January and February (before the elections were officially announced) increased.
CMS Media Lab has started a special research project to monitor the coverage of the elections by various media. Early feedback from the analysis shows that the coverage of election-related political issues in TV news has already increased threefold since the elections were announced in early March.
The suspense over political alliances falling into place tops the list with maximum time and stories till 15 March. The least covered until now is the issue of security. In all of February, the six national TV news channels gave maximum coverage to Congress party president Sonia Gandhi. In the earlier part of March, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar dominated coverage, and of course during the past fortnight Varun Gandhi completely blanked out coverage of other individual leaders in prime time news.
However, comparing the preliminary coverage during 2004 and these early 2009 trends, there are some positive developments. The obvious bias and leanings in covering the party in power that was found in 2004 are not so blatant so far (except in the case of DD News, where the preoccupation with the ruling party is evident). Also, early trends in 2009 are indicating some maturity and innovation in the coverage of the polls, compared with the drama and entertainment of the 2004 elections.
These initial findings are predictable. Television news channels are now known to compete with each other to “break” news that can shock and create interest through drama. However, these are still early days of the election spectacle. And it will be interesting to track how real issues and the role of providing informed choices to the voters are further developed within this compulsion for breaking news.
Indian media has and will play a critical role in bringing politics closer to all of us and also influencing the political game itself. The quality and quantity of coverage of election news will play a decisive role in political discourse and ultimately the election outcome. This column will continue to share CMS Media Lab findings on the role played by media, especially the TV news channels and newspapers, in this democratic exercise.
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies. Your comments and feedback on this column, which runs every other Friday, are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
Graphics by Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint