In Indian elections, Gaza violence, some misses and misfires by traditional media

Reporting on Indian elections, war on Gaza challenges journalists in a most essential way.

WrittenBy:Kalpana Sharma
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Cricket and elections, in that order, have dominated the Indian news cycle for the last few weeks. The world media on the other hand is focussed on the war declared by Israel against Gaza following the October 7 attack by Hamas. The daily mounting toll of casualties reported from Gaza, especially of children, has resulted in a mounting cry across much of the world for a ceasefire, but so far to no effect.

Leaving aside cricket, reporting on Indian elections, and on the war on Gaza challenges journalists in a most essential way.

Election coverage in India consists mostly of reporting what she or he said and some reports on what the public perceives. Journalists are also expected to make a guess about which way the wind is blowing, in the direction of the incumbent, the opponent, or neither.

This format permits prominent political figures to get away with statements that are either inaccurate, or even outright lies. Yet, rarely does the media call them out. As a result, for the record, what a politician says, including the prime minister, is uncritically recorded, and reported. Without challenge, it gets accepted as fact.

As politics is essentially a battle of perception, this approach of the media contributes directly to popular perception about a personality or a political party. There is little doubt that the blanket and uncritical coverage by the Indian media, especially television, of everything Prime Minister Narendra Modi does or says, from the inauguration of a minor railway station, or highway, to a political rally, has contributed to the personality cult around him. We witness this again in the ongoing election campaigns in the five states that are holding elections – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Mizoram, and Rajasthan. 

While reporting what politicians say during elections cannot be avoided, it ought not to be the bulk of coverage. There are, of course, reports of what voters think, with some kind of random sampling done by most reporters. Very few try to reach out to women, or to the most marginalised. Generally, the vox pop consists of people you bump into and who are willing to talk.

The opportunity that is missed during election coverage, which sends droves of reporters on the ground, is the chance to assess whether the declarations made by incumbent governments, boasting of far-reaching benefits given to the poorest communities, are true or not. Have various government schemes that are projected as successful benefitted the poorest? 

In this round of state elections, such reporting has largely been missing, barring a few exceptions. Thus, the rare report tells us that the much-touted Ujjwala scheme, for instance, that is supposed to have helped households switch from polluting biomass chulhas to LPG gas has been less than successful. The reasons remain the same as those documented in numerous studies. That after the first free gas cylinder, families simply have not been able to afford the replacement. Women are compelled to revert to using firewood that affects their own health directly and increases their workload. 

Doing such stories is not difficult if you have reporters already on the ground. Given that most media houses have drastically reduced investment in ground-based reporting, this is an opportunity missed. And especially so in these elections, where we have seen intense competition between opposing parties to announce ever more generous benefits to the poor.

Of course, in this age of social media, whether traditional media really affects voting choices is a moot point. Do what we report, or the way we tell our stories as journalists, really contribute to perceptions that affect political choices, or even an understanding of what’s happening in the country given the all-pervasive presence of social media? 

Take Manipur, for instance. It is now seven months since the state has been embroiled in a virtual civil war between two communities, the Meitei, and the Kuki-Zo. The conflict continues to fester without any serious intervention by the central government to find a solution. Just when you think things have quieted down, another incident is reported of killings or destruction.

For the people living in the state and in the region, the veracity of what circulates as “news” continues to be challenging. Increasingly, each side is convinced that what it has seen circulated on social media is the fact. Even journalists from the two opposing sides are caught in this battle of what really is “the truth” and what are facts.

Similarly, the current Israeli attack on Gaza has raised many questions in the international media on how to sift fact from fiction in the reporting. 

Take, for instance, this report in the New York Times on an attack on the Al Shifa hospital in Gaza on November 10.  The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) claimed that it was a misfired missile from Hamas. The New York Times went to some lengths to verify facts and has concluded that it was Israeli shells that hit the hospital.

However, it also adds, “The evidence reviewed by The Times from Al-Shifa points more directly to strikes by Israel – whether on purpose or by accident is unclear.” That caveat speaks to the lengths some in the Western media are going to prove that they are “balanced” in their reporting, even as they ignore the clear statements by numerous Israeli politicians about why their country has launched this devastating attack on Gaza. The politicians make no bones about the motive behind the bombardment.

Earlier, on October 17, a blast at the Al Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza also triggered a similar debate in the international media. While Palestinians claimed it was an Israeli rocket, the IDF insisted it was a misfired rocket by Hamas. In its report, the NYT concluded: 

“Using satellite imagery to triangulate the launch point in those videos, The Times determined that the projectile was fired toward Gaza from near the Israeli town of Nahal Oz shortly before the deadly hospital blast. The findings match the conclusion reached by some online researchers.”

The lengths to which media houses have gone to question versions put out by the warring sides illustrates the tremendous challenges in reporting on conflict in general, and this kind of conflict in particular. There are no easy answers. But apart from the individual incidents such as the two cited above, what informs readers and viewers is the choice of what is reported. Here the bias, stated or otherwise, of a publication or TV channel comes through even as they project themselves as being balanced. 

In any case, irrespective of what major news outlets in the West such as NYT or others report, people are getting their information about the war from other sources. The thousands of young people on the streets of western capitals, demonstrating every weekend demanding a ceasefire in this war even as their own governments continue to support and arm Israel, are not depending on these traditional sources for their information.  

There are dozens of independent platforms streaming on social media that provide anyone interested with the realities that Gazans live with every single day since Israel began the bombardment followed by the land invasion. These images and video clips are a record that cannot be erased even if mainstream media chooses to downplay the reality. 

Meanwhile, a sobering side of the Israeli war on Gaza is that an estimated 41 journalists covering it have been killed, according to this report by Reporters without Borders.  That number has increased since that report was published and is now thought to be touching 50. 

Even as some in the media debate what are the real “facts” in this terrible war, those trying to do their job in recording events face dangers that far exceed anything we have witnessed in other conflicts.  

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