The media and the verdict of Election 2004

BY ninan| IN Media Practice | 13/05/2004
The media and the verdict of Election 2004

 

 

The media missed the big picture, and it was the party will less advertising on television that got seats.

 

 

                              A  Hoot Editorial

One more Indian election will become a media benchmark for several reasons. More election coverage attended upon this countrywide franchise than in years past.  We’ve never had as many news channels as we do now, at least a round dozen, including the international ones. More money was spent on this election by the media than ever before. To send out correspondents far and wide, to commission pollsters, and to invest in dazzling graphics and studio sets. And plenty was spent on the media by advertisers. The CEO of  Aaj Tak famously said that even raising rates was not keeping advertisers away at election time .  NDTV hiked its spot rates for poll programming from its usual Rs 10,000 per ten seconds to Rs 40-50,000 per ten seconds. Star News said they had signed up advertising worth Rs 18.7 crores.  

But the most spectacular reason for which media coverage of Election 2004 will go down in history is because they all got it so wrong, both the pollsters and the pundits.  They tried very hard, so why did this happen? They got some bits right, but not the wave. Why did not a single exit poll or opinion poll even suggest that the Congress could pull ahead of the BJP?  Yes the exit polls predicted a Chandrababu Naidu rout in Andhra Pradesh, but until those polls came out journalists thought he would pull through on the strength of votes in the Andhra region. 

 There are three issues here. One about the accuracy of forecasting which is not strictly a media activity but served up by them. Two about the failure of good old-fashioned reporting to predict that the BJP was going to lose. And three, about how much the media counts for with the electorate.  

On the first, the Hoot carried two articles analysing why predictions go wrong. There could be problems with how the question is posed, how the sampling is done, how professionally the fieldwork is conducted. Some of the inDIVidual state results predicted in this election, in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Karnataka, for instance, have been proved right. The overall picture was missed.  

The second issue, about old fashioned reporting is baffling. On the face of it reporters both on TV and in the print media trekked into the countryside looking for people to quiz on electoral prospects. Some of the interviews one saw on TV with communities were inept, but others did attempt to gauge the mood. The Indian Express made much of its team of correspondents hitting the road but while they produced highly readable copy they often seemed to be doing their own thing, not necessarily assessing party prospects. Or at least, the desk was not pulling their assessments together. They did however get the mood right in all three Vidhan Sabha polls.  

One got the distinct impression that TV channels perhaps filled too much airtime with representation from party spokespersons.  Those people are motivated, not representative. They are not going to help you gauge which way the electorate is inclined. They also went after celebrity candidates, whereas inDIVidual contests, however colourful, may not be the best indicator of public mood. By and large, all channels ignored the vast number of non-celebrity candidates, because in advertising-led coverage, the contest has to sell with the cable and satellite voter.  

On the third question, on how much the media counts, take political advertising for a start. First there was the whole India Shining onslaught on TV which had the Congress on the back foot. Then there was the brief rush of below-the-belt surrogate advertising. Thereafter in the final weeks there were the poll ads put in by the BJP which took credit for everything from cooking gas to economic growth to cricket victories. But all of this left the voter cold.  Poll ads on TV for the Congress Party were few and far between. They obviously lacked funds. Yet it was the party with less advertising on television that got seats.

Is the media then overestimating  its role in an election? Are politicians and advertisers overestimating its role? Media friendly politicians such as S M Krishna and Chandrababu Naidu have been rejected by voters. Over the years the two men have got plenty of positive air time.  Also, the BJP which the media hyped up both in print and on TV, dwelling on ten per cent plus growth, dwelling on its suave and smart politicians, following them around from breakfast table to the hustings, lost comprehensively. What does that say about how seriously the voter takes the media?

Perhaps the more basic point to be made here is about whether we are overestimating the reach of the media.  The Hoot carried an article recently on the reach of media in rural areas. Using data from Census 2001 it concludes that India may be shining but 81 percent of rural households in our country still cannot afford to buy even a black and white television set. And 68 percent of rural households do not own a radio or transistor set. In all the states in the east and northeast India rural television ownership is very low. In West Bengal one out of seven and in Orissa one out of ten rural households are lucky to possess a television set. In Bihar just one out of eighteen rural households has managed to buy a television set. So while TV may give a lot of coverage at election time, millions of voters will not see any of it.

Since conjecture, like advice is free, there is yet another way of looking at this. If you take the election result as a verdict against communal politics, you could argue that the media affected the electoral outcome by raking up the pogroms in Gujarat as an issue at election time, and that it worked to the benefit of the Congress.   But to make that assumption, you have to assume that the message was reaching. Maybe it was.  

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