The stereotype of a reporter landing in a new city and then getting political insights from the taxi driver on the way from the airport is not without merit. For a visitor, the first encounter is with the cabbie, and cabbies, as assumed, have not just local knowledge, but much wisdom too. A cabbie’s views often get extrapolated and incorporated into much of the reporting.
As true as this cliché may be, a good journalist doesn’t rely only on one source, however well-informed. Drawing conclusions based on a cab ride can be a dangerously short-sighted approach. Any professional reporter will talk to several more people to get the big picture.
The hazards of making hasty judgements based on limited information were visible on Sunday when television channels declared that not only was the BJP leading in Bihar, but would also form the government. One channel ‘called’ it the Americanism of Indian elections as this has now become a part of the election coverage, just like opinion polls and exit polls have; prime ministerial candidate debates could well be next.
A channel’s confident declaration that the BJP was the winner led to a comedy of errors of sorts — the party’s workers began boisterous celebrations, banging drums and distributing sweets. Social media went into an overdrive, heaping praise and ridicule in equal measures.
As if a switch had been pressed, the pundits started giving their reasons for why this had happened and put it down to the political acumen of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.
Except that all this was premature and the situation changed soon after. A little later when it became clear that the early trends were misleading and the Grand Alliance was forging ahead, the exact opposite analysis was proffered, without missing much of a heartbeat.
The dilemma of those in the channel studios is fully understandable. It is not as if they are, as trolls suspect, in the pay of one party or the other. Locked in a closed room, the analysts can only go by the information they get from the anchor who, in turn, is being fed data from reliable sources. There is no implicit bias at play here.
The problem arises when the data is not cross-checked with official sources such as the election commission’s website and then — and this is the crux of the matter —opinions are offered with great conviction. It is difficult to really say whether these opinions were pre-formed and whether what we get is little more than confirmation bias. The first rule of punditry and analysis is, or should be — no conclusions without confirmed data; extrapolation on the basis of trends is a bad idea.
But to say that is to question the nature of the beast. For the Indian media – including all platforms, broadcast, print and social — elections have become a journalistic carnival. There was always something of a spectacle about the elections, from the campaigns to the speeches to the declaration of the results, but television, with in-studio debates, opinion and exit polls and analyses of all the minutiae has enhanced the experience.
The intense competition among television channels to grab the viewers and stop them from changing channels means that the plain vanilla coverage will not do — all the bells and whistles such as graphics and ‘psephology’ have to be added. Nor is the fancy presentation of figures enough. The viewer wants to know what all of it means. Enter the dodgy ‘science’ of trying to convert opinion poll numbers into seats, which, as we have discovered in election after election, is not fail-safe.
Now, who conducted these surveys, what is their past record, who were the respondents, what were the questions asked and what is the basis of the calculations — these questions go unanswered or unquestioned. The polls often get it completely wrong, as happened in the case of Bihar. (The irony is that the one poll that was accurate was never aired.) It will not be surprising if a poll about opinion polls shows that the general public has become increasingly sceptical about them. Yet, will this stop the media from conducting pre-poll surveys in the future? Hardly.
The media plays a critical role in the electoral process, bringing not just the images but also the issues to the people. It can also sway public opinion. Canny politicians and parties have realised that they need the media on their side and have readied well-oiled systems to keep the media fed with their own propaganda. During the run-up to the May 2014 general elections, political parties arranged for their own live feed of speeches to be given free to media houses; naturally the coverage was often one-sided.
No credible media outfit will knowingly present a biased picture. Television panels or newspaper edit pages offer views of every hue and ideology. The social media is a raucous echo chamber, but has now begun to play an important role in disseminating information, which comes from the mainstream media; mistakes thus get multiplied and spread far and wide. The only way to ensure that such situations do not arise in the future is to go back to the basics — check and double check information, proceed carefully before drawing conclusions and wait till all the data is in hand. In short, follow the basic rules of journalism.
Siddharth Bhatia is founder editor, thewire.in. The views expressed by the author are personal.