Ranjona Banerji: Results Day was #EpicFail for News Channels

10 Nov,2015

By Ranjona Banerji

 

The morning of November 8, 2015 was one of the most extraordinary in the annals of television news. The event was results day for Bihar state elections. We had whipped ourselves into a frenzy during the whole month of voting. Exit polls, predictions, astrologers, the underground betting market, the Intelligence Bureau were all discussed threadbare on TV, print and social media. Pundits and journeymen all gave us their considered viewpoints or shrieked louder than the rest.

 

The chatter began on November 8 just before 8 am. Most exit polls had predicted a win for the BJP, a few had gone with a close contest. By 8.30 am, all the English news channels and some language ones as well were predicting a massive win for BJP and friends. NDTV has long been the main channel for many to watch for election results, mainly because of Prannoy Roy, the man who introduced the word “psephelogy” or election forecasting to India and NDTV was clear with a BJP win.

 

At 8.30 am, I went on the Election Commission website. It showed no results or trends or leads because it said that counting in Round 1 was not complete. Where were these channels getting their figures from? By now, Shekhar Gupta, one of India’s most experienced journalists, was pontificating on how the anti-incumbency factor had done Nitish Kumar, Bihar chief minister, in. Across channels, various BJP spokespersons were looking smug and happy.

 

On Twitter, a completely different story was emerging. Figures from local reporters, from newspaper Twitter accounts (the Times of India was at complete odds with TimesNow here) and local news channels showed the Grand Alliance of Nitish Kumar, Lalu Yadav and the Congress well ahead and the BJP struggling to catch up. On India Today TV, political economist Surjit Bhalla, who had forecast a clear win for Nitish Kumar in his Indian Express column the week before (in spite of being a clear Narendra Modi supporter so far), told Rajdeep Sardesai to check his figures of a BJP win because social media and the Election Commission was saying something else altogether. Sardesai looked flummoxed.

 

This story was repeated between 8 and 9 am on all channels. I went to the Election Commission website just after 9 am. It showed the BJP leading in 5 constituencies and the Grand Alliance or Mahagathbandhan in 12. Soon after CNN-IBN made the first course correction and changed its figures around. However, it was the same CNN-IBN which decided not to carry the exit poll it had commissioned after the last round of voting. This was because Axis had given a huge majority to the Grand Alliance and CNN-IBN felt that this result went against the journalistic work it had done on the field.

 

NDTV sadly was the last English news channel to see the light and this has cost it considerable goodwill amongst its ardent followers who trusted it to be the most professional. NDTV has said that the information it got from Nielson was wrong and hence the errors.

 

There are some basic journalism problems here though. The first votes that are counted are the postal ballots. These are usually not representative of voting trends on the ground. Why then did all these news channels extrapolate such massive victory margins from postal ballots? Some had given the BJP a lead of about 30 seats and had reached the 100 mark for the party when counting in Round 1 had not even been declared. When you consider that the BJP by itself ultimately got only 53 seats overall, it shows journalistic sense at its worst.

 

It is also hard to understand why no one in those TV newsrooms had even opened the Election Commission website. Where were the reporters on the ground picking up information from the EC itself? It is the only counting authority. Why ask outside agencies for information that anyone with a smart phone could have accessed?

 

This was about the worst display of journalism that I have seen in recent times, mainly because the basics were ignored and no checks were carried out. It is tragic how TV news makes these mistakes over and over again in its desperate race for be first at everything. People come to the media for information and opinion not Bollywood extravaganzas. Social media is now a better weathervane and predictor. Like TV threatened and wounded the print media, TV news is getting a bashing from social media. A seasoned journalist told me that he only followed the results on Twitter and got an excellent sense of what was going on.

 

As they say in social media terms, TV was an “#EpicFail”.

 

**

 

And then we have exit polls. More often than not, they get it wrong. If one of six gets it right, that’s about the worst statistics of believability. That’s not an inexact science, that’s just wishing on the air. And then when one does get it right, the commissioning newsroom does not carry it. Go figure.

 

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