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Has media missed an opportunity to set the agenda this election?

Has media missed an opportunity to set the agenda this election?
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First Published: Thu, Apr 16 2009. 10 08 PM IST

Updated: Thu, Apr 16 2009. 10 08 PM IST
Thursday saw the first phase of polling for the 15th Lok Sabha elections. The election pitch in our media is at its peak, with a frenzy of political debates, campaign coverage, party advertising and numerous polls. Yet, there is no noticeable agenda that is emerging in these parliamentary elections.
Some friends in the media lament that this is perhaps the first time that we are seeing a general election without a clear poll plank. A few months ago, many people expected security and economic issues to rule the roost. That hasn’t happened; instead, the strongest poll planks we have seen so far have to do with hate speeches and personal attacks.
And in their preoccupation to report who and what our parties and candidates are doing, somehow the media seems to have forgotten its own agenda-setting role. More time and energy is spent in predicting who will win rather than raising substantial issues.
Also See Disconnect With Voters (Graphic)
The power of the news media to set the agenda and to focus attention on issues that matter to the common man, is well documented. Studies have also shown how people acquire factual information about issues from the news media as well as learn how much importance to attach to a topic on the basis of the emphasis placed on it.
For me, the disconnect between politicians and voters is similar to the disconnect between the news media and their users. The most relevant and important things seem to be those that matter least to our politicians and journalists. For instance, it is hard to think of anything more important than health. Yet, health is virtually absent from our debates and politics in India. Except a brief mention in manifestos, there is no mention or stand on this critical issue. For our news media, health is not dramatic enough to be given any priority.
The graphs below shows how “development” issues such as health, agriculture and education are not even on the radar of our popular news sources.
The obsession with how parties are doing, rather than with serious political issues, is reaching new heights in this election. Our news media seem to be content with just covering what is happening, especially the drama surroundings events such as the shoe throw at the home minister or the hate speeches. For example, in the whole of March, during prime time in six news channels, Varun Gandhi and his controversial speech received a coverage of 994 minutes—much higher than that received by the two prime ministerial candidates—L.K. Advani (186 minutes) and Manmohan Singh (100 minutes).
And polls, loud debates and self-praising advertising fill the remaining media space and time.
With due regard, this election has definitely seen improved quality of rural coverage along with increased scale and depth of campaign coverage across the country.
This has brought to the fore issues such as distribution of cash and electioneering gimmicks. Special mention also has to be made of the fancier presentation of such data in news media through new-age graphics.
Unfortunately, all this has not translated into better analysis of party and candidate performance. The media is missing an important opportunity to inquire, research and debate issues such as government spending, health, education, roads and electricity. Importantly, editorial analysis and input to explain implications on voters and their quality of life, is lost in all this emphasis on drama and presentation.
News media have a more important role to perform than merely satisfying idle curiosity. Voters rely on journalism for the information they use to decide whom to vote for. Given the important role assigned to the media in our country, the responsibility on journalists during elections is even more critical. They have to become the voice of the people.
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 fineprint@livemint.com
Graphics by Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint
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First Published: Thu, Apr 16 2009. 10 08 PM IST