What’s wrong with the Indian media’s election coverage?

Every election offers an opportunity for journalists to report on fellow citizens who are outside the media glare. Few grab the chance.

ByKalpana Sharma
What’s wrong with the Indian media’s election coverage?
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Elections are always challenging times for the media. Also exhilarating. For they give us the opportunity to go out in the field and get a sense of not just the political temperature but also how India lives, and dies.

This year, with elections imminent in Bihar, field reporting has posed many challenges due to the Covid pandemic. Despite that, it is heartening that at least some newspapers, websites and TV news channels are running stories that go beyond politics in Bihar.

These, however, remain the exceptions. The bulk of the reporting, predictably, is about the political persona, what they say, and the permutations and combinations that always give grist to the political mill in India. Bihar, in addition, has that other element – caste. It takes specialised knowledge for people in other parts of the country to get a handle on the many acronyms of castes and sub-castes that come into play in Bihar's electoral politics.

The absence of women's voices from even routine reports on political rallies, for instance, is striking. In fact, given that chief minister Nitish Kumar has made women so much the focus of his government, we are not hearing enough from the women in Bihar.

Beyond the rallies and public events, far fewer this time, is the reality of the lives of the people of Bihar. Supriya Sharma of Scroll captures this in a report from Muzaffarpur. She chooses to speak to the poorest, the Musahars, and writes, "The Musahars live on the brink of hunger even in the best of years. But this year hunger is all pervasive in Bihar. Everywhere you go, it is the same refrain: 'Koi kaam nahi, ghar baitha hain.' There is no work, we are sitting at home. ‘Ek time kha raha hai ek time nahi kha raha hai.' We are skipping meals every other day. In such a calamitous year, the state is holding assembly elections in early November."

Particularly heartbreaking is the photograph of a young widow holding up a picture of her husband, who died at 22. She looks no more than 12 or 14 years old. Yet, she already has two children. Child marriage? Underage pregnancies? This is the kind of reality check election coverage can provide.

Another such story is by Basant Kumar of Newslaundry titled, "Sushil Modi says Bihar is open defecation free. If only he looked outside his door." The report debunks these claims and reminds us yet again the wide gap between official claims and the reality on the ground. In this case, the residents of a Dalit colony half a kilometre from deputy chief minister Sushil Modi's house in Patna are compelled to defecate in the open because the toilets are unusable.

Routine "developmental" reporting, as it was once called, is now history. Only when there is a calamity, or elections, do media houses send reporters out to find out what's going on beyond the obvious range of media reach. As always there are exceptions. Often such stories are by independent journalists with a passion to write about the voiceless. They struggle to get their pieces published.

Yet, in the 1980s, "development" was actually a beat. The Hindustan Times, then headed by the redoubtable BG Verghese, had adopted Chhatera, a village not far from Delhi in Haryana. Reporters were sent out regularly to write about it. Every fortnight, a full page titled "Our village, Chhatera" appeared in the paper's Sunday magazine. It ran from 1969 to 1975 and only stopped when Verghese was sacked by the paper just before the Emergency was declared. His editorial questioning the Indian government's action of annexing the former kingdom of Sikkim had earned the ire of Indira Gandhi, who was then the prime minister.

At the Indian Express, where I worked in the 1980s under the same editor, a special correspondent was assigned to travel anywhere in India to write about health, education, and other issues linked with people's survival. Even if times have changed, and the media as well, the issues that affect the poorest in this country are unchanged.

Every story that appears about India outside the media glare reminds us of this. Such as this distressing report in the Indian Express from Madhya Pradesh where a 45-year-old woman bled to death before giving birth to a stillborn 16th child. Her 23-year-old daughter could not persuade her to have a tubectomy two years ago, when she was pregnant for the 15th time, because the husband would not agree to it. It’s hard to believe that this is happening in the India of 2020. Or perhaps not.

Furthermore, as the story points out, there is no gynaecologist in the nearest hospital, 5 km away. The nurses are trained to conduct routine uncomplicated deliveries, but if there is a woman in a high-risk pregnancy, there is no one around to intervene. Qualified help is available at a hospital 40 km away.

On the importance of field reporting in these times, the Print carried this article by the journalist Ashutosh Bhardwaj. Writing on what he calls a crisis in Indian media, Bhardwaj argues, "Journalism plummeted when social media became the preferred mode of journalistic expression and hashtags hijacked field reporting. The slide continued when the follower count started determining the worth of a journalist, and instead of toiling away in the field, they increasingly opted for provocative opinions in a few characters. It reached its nadir when selfies became an obsession, a complex reportage brought fewer rewards than Twitter outrage, and the holy adage ‘you are as good as your last byline’ stood replaced by ‘you are as good as your last tweet’."

While his general point is valid, I don't think the hashtag journalists he refers to are the reporters who are still out in the field doing their job, such as those mentioned above. Field reporting has suffered because media houses have decided it is not worth investing in this kind of in-depth reporting. On television in particular, opinion is much cheaper than reporting. Print media still devotes substantial space to reporting, but if you scan newspapers from the 1980s or even 1990s, you will notice the stark difference.

With so many reporters being laid off as media houses downsize, we really cannot put the blame on reporters. And if a small section of high-profile journalists, living in the bubble created by social media, choose to resort to hashtag journalism, this is not a reflection on all journalists.

The crisis in the Indian media requires a much longer and detailed discussion. And it goes well beyond reporting from the field or sitting in an office. It’s a crisis that has been exacerbated by a government that has made life impossible for any media organisation choosing to report the reality.

Most shocking and condemnable has been the attack on the editor of Kashmir Times, Anuradha Bhasin. This is the oldest English newspaper in Kashmir, founded by her father Ved Bhasin, one of the most respected editors in India.

In the last month, Bhasin has had to face a physical incursion into her home in Jammu, a place allotted to her as a journalist. People barged into her house claiming it had been allotted to them, turned things upside down, and stole her personal belongings.

As if that was not enough, this week the office allotted to Kashmir Times in Srinagar's Press Enclave was sealed by the estates department. All this because Jamwal remains an outspoken critic of the Indian government's actions in Kashmir. She rightly calls this a "political vendetta".

The message this sends to all media, not just in Kashmir, is clear: if you cross a line, there is a price to pay. Either toe the line, or perish.

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Complaining about the media is easy and often justified. But hey, it’s the model that’s flawed.

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