Shailesh Kapoor: The Mediocrity of Election Results Coverage

14 Dec,2018

By Shailesh Kapoor

 

Earlier this week, on Tuesday, election results from five states were on the news agenda. The cliffhanger in Madhya Pradesh and the close contest in Rajasthan, combined with the story of Congress’ resurgence in the Hindi heartland, made for an irresistible news day by the end of it. But while the content proposition was delightful, the television coverage itself was terribly underwhelming.

 

Election results have been event-like days for the news genre for decades now. With the advent of EVMs, the counting process got crashed from 1-2 days to 1-2 hours. Anything that’s in the T20 format works, and this format too is a television channel’s delight – it’s fast-paced, exciting, unscripted and unpredictable. The natural tendency, then, should be to hero the format and let it do all the heavy-lifting.

 

But trust our news channels to complicate simple things. The Tuesday coverage across most Hindi and English news channels was like a T20 game where the cricket is good but the commentary and the graphics are terrible. You will still watch it for the cricket, even if the viewing experience s. It made me wonder what has made it come down to this. How has a collective community of topline channels forgotten how to cover election results over the last few years?

 

There are many concerns with how such days have now started to pan out, but let’s focus on a few key ones. The first issue is the unnecessarily busy feel of the election shows, with multiple talking heads, both inside and outside the studio. As it is, the pace of results unfolding is breakneck. The various talking heads can be heard and seen jostling for attention, even as the anchor(s) attempt to balance the results with the commentary, which invariably is lost in the din anyway. Why do election results in their first hour have to be handled like a noisy primetime debate on a slow-news day?

 

The second issue is about the graphics. In an attempt to outdo each other, channels have started investing in complicated, often non-intuitive, graphics that add little real value to the analysis. English news channels have been particularly guilty of it. Psephologists are one camera, jumping around big screens like energised bunnies, presenting data that is irrelevant, to use a mild word, when they should actually be behind the scenes, like a cricket statistician, arming the anchors with material that’s compelling and insightful.

 

In my growing-up years, when the word “psephology” was first introduced into my vocabulary, I understood it as a fine balance between statistics and political insight, in context of election results. This balance has gone awry now. There is an overdose of statistics, but very little insight. In fact, the ‘insight’ part today seems to have an anything-goes approach. Comments are increasingly banal, often factually inaccurate.

 

Seat-level leads, which were always a much sought-after aspect of election results coverage, especially in the General Elections, has been sidelined over the last decade. Even the 2014 elections had lesser emphasis on individual seats than 2004 and 2009. There is some token on-screen coverage, but very few channels have anchors and panelists who are actually aware of too many candidates by name and background. This robs the coverage of the classical personal touch. On Tuesday, it was rare to spot a local panelist across channels who knew the political faces in any of the five states.

 

Then there is this confusing issue about multiple sources of results. Half an hour into counting, you will see at least five different results across various channels put together, some of which are in direct contradiction with each other. Till one hour after the results started trickling in, which way you thought Rajasthan is going was a function of which channel you were watching.

 

Next Thursday, the ratings will be released and news channels will slice the data to do their share of emailers on how well they did on December 11. It will be an endorsement of mediocre coverage at a category level. And we shall see a repeat in the summer of 2019.

 

Shailesh Kapoor is Founder and CEO, Ormax Media. The views here are personal

 

 

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