Finally, the results of the marathon general election are out! While I am glad that the suspense is over, what makes me happier is the end to the hyper speculation and banal discourse that has dominated election coverage by the news media.
Also See Issues Highlighted By Media (Graphic)
The election results showcase the media disconnect with citizens’ needs and aspirations. The coverage can be summed up as the story of Varun Gandhi versus Rahul Gandhi. The former received the highest coverage (though mostly of a negative variety) and overshadowed other politicians in both print and television news. The latter got more coverage than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and mostly positive. Similar to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) negative campaign compared with the Congress’ positive one.
Some of the highlights of the CMS Media Lab study of the election coverage are presented in the following graph. In the last two months (March and April), almost 40% of prime time television and almost 30% of newspaper coverage focused on the elections. And yet what we saw and heard were in complete variance with the eventual outcome, further highlighting the disconnect of our media with reality—whether through polls, surveys, journalist reports or even the way personalities, parties and issues were presented.
PN Vasanti, Director, Centre for Media Studies
Even though we did not have any towering leader? in this election, personalities—mostly who said what and how—dominated our election coverage. Varun Gandhi and the shoe-throwing incident were the two dominant media images in this election. While the two main parties—the Congress and the BJP—received more or less a similar volume of coverage, the coverage was not representative across other regional and smaller parties. Similarly, in terms of issues, the media coverage did not raise or frame issues. There was hardly any coverage in the media of basic issues such as prices, poverty, drinking water, farmers’ suicides, party manifestos and so on. Interestingly, most alliances were discussed around issues that are not directly affecting our country and its people—for instance, the situation of Sikhs in Pakistan and Sri Lankan Tamils.
There are some obvious lessons. First, these results show media coverage is no substitute for public contact and public meetings. In an era of technology and new media, this may be difficult to appreciate, but personal contact and interaction has more potential to help politicians and political parties. Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Prakash Karat and Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad were both hyped up by the media, but their parties were among the biggest losers in this election. Thirdly, various opinion and exit polls underestimated the prospects of the Congress; in 2004, the chances of the BJP were overestimated by such polls. Despite large sample sizes and money spent, almost all surveys and exit polls by news media failed to predict the extent of the mandate for the Congress.
One of the concerns at the beginning of the 15th Lok Sabha elections was that the polls will be fought at two separate levels—one, in individual parliamentary constituencies and the other, in news media. Thankfully, the results clearly show the media as a forum for fighting elections lost out and voters are wise enough not to be swayed by what they see and hear on TV and read in the newspapers. This is also a sign of the diminishing credibility of our news media and unless it introspects and introduces some accountability, a free fall may well become irreversible.
Respond to this column at email@example.com
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint