Poll time reality check

BY KALPANA SHARMA| IN Opinion | 17/04/2009
Elections are a time when the media discovers the real India and ventures to do stories about them. They give newspapers a news hook to run such stories,

Second Take

Kalpana Sharma




Elections are a time when the media discovers India, the real India.  If people complain that their Members of Parliament only visit their constituencies once in five years, the same can be said about the media.  In the run up to any election, municipal, assembly or parliament, you find newspapers full of stories about the "real" conditions in which people live, stories that could have been written at any point in the previous five years.


So why is it that only an election draws the media eye to such perennial issues?  Our increasing obsession with printing only news that "sells" is one.  This was not a perception that guided news selection in the 1980s.  Hence, most newspapers had space for the so-called "developmental" stories, or reports about areas outside the major metropolitan centres that are in a permanent state of neglect.  It doesn’t require great investigative powers to find such places.  They stare at you each time you venture outside the safe environments of India’s large cities.  Yet, in so-called "normal" times, there is simply no space, or so reporters are told, for such stories.


Elections give newspapers a news hook to run such stories.  And reporters get a chance to understand the "electorate", people who are not necessarily their readers, but people who will decide the future of the country.  The value of these opinions, of ordinary farmers, women, slum dwellers, tribals, minorities, suddenly takes on an importance that is rarely recognised otherwise.


In print journalism there has always been a tradition to send reporters out into the field to test the political mood, at least in the key constituencies, in the run-up to elections.  Inevitably, even if a reporter is briefed to assess party strength, caste calculations etc, she ends up writing about the problems people face – lack of water, electricity, road, schools etc.  Thus, an "election story" becomes a "developmental" story, entirely by accident.


Election 2009 has yielded a valuable crop of such stories that have helped educate people about the issues that people are facing in the country.  The Hindustan Times, for instance, launched its India Yatra series even before the election schedule was announced.  It sent out 30 reporters and 30 photographers to different parts of the country.  The result was an immensely readable and informative set of stories that told us about unexpected developments in some of the most neglected areas and about other parts where time appears to stand still. We learned that voters in some parts of Himachal Pradesh were concerned about the impact of a proposed dam on their lives, and that Kalahandi in Orissa, once the face of starvation and malnutrition, was now a changed place.


Similarly, the Indian Express, that has maintained its reputation as the best newspaper for field reporting, kept up with this tradition during election coverage.  Thus stories from Sharad Pawar’s Baramati constituency, now being contested by his daughter Supriya Sule, reveal that despite the attention showered on it by Pawar, there are still villages where there is no power for 16 hours and places where the water is so polluted by local industries that people are forced to buy drinking water at a high cost.  The reason such reports come as a surprise is because the usual reporting on Baramati is entirely about the positive changes and developments that are taking place thanks to Pawar’s generosity.  Junket journalism, when either political parties or corporate houses arrange filed visits for journalists, usually results in such stories.  When journalists use good old shoe leather, as the saying goes, the results are markedly different as is evident in some of these stories. 


Also given the paucity of stories about industrial pollution in rural areas, you would imagine that this has stopped happening.  The Baramati story reminds us that groundwater sources are probably being polluted with impunity in many other parts of India but we in the media are not looking, or reporting.


This election, many newspapers have conceded to the interests of a tech-savvy generation that accesses information increasingly through the Internet.  Thus Hindustan Times has made its Election 2009 page informative and accessible with detailed information on every constituency and on candidates.  This is invaluable for any serious follower of elections but is also an educational tool that will prove useful once the elections are over.


The Indian Express web edition has also improved with the advent of elections.  It is easy to navigate and has a host of interesting stories that one can miss if you read only one edition.


The Hindu runs two election pages in its print edition that include informative analyses by Yogendra Yadav of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.  But its web edition has not changed with the times and remains stuck in a fairly static format.  Also its two special elections pages are limited to stories deemed "national".  As a result, unless you are based in a city where the paper has an edition, you tend to miss out on election news about other regions.  For example, the Chennai edition will contain detailed news about Tamil Nadu and the southern states but these stories will not necessarily appear on the special election pages that are common to all editions.  As a result, a reader in Delhi anxious to know what’s happening in Tamil Nadu will only read a couple of stories considered important enough to appear on the special pages.  Similarly, people in the South will get little about what’s happening in many northern states even though The Hindu does cover all of them.  These lacunae could have been rectified in the web edition by clubbing together all election stories.  But this has not been done.


Still, despite several shortcomings, this election has clearly shown that print and the Internet are a far more accessible, reliable, and sensible source of information on the elections than the electronic media.


At a recent discussion on NDTV, with the typical collection of talking heads, Congress Party spokesperson Jayanti Natarajan, whose exhausted face is seen on practically every English news channel almost every day, suggested that the media was responsible for reducing this election process to one that had become a slanging match between different personalities.  As a result, the issues voters were concerned about were lost.  The two journalists on the programme, anchorperson Nidhi Razdan and The Hindu’s Associate Editor Siddharth Vardarajan, grudgingly agreed although with the caveat that it was electronic media that tended to do this and not print.



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