The news channels are on an overdrive with the General Elections 2014 currently underway across the country in phases. Weekday prime time slots have been extended to weekends, even as customised new properties have been launched. However, most news channels rely on debates in the prime time.
The coverage is being keenly scrutinised by many analysts and media observers.
Kumar Ketkar, senior journalist and Chief Editor, Dainik Divya Marathi observed, “All news channels have only been covering the Modi factor and not the essential challenges. There is no other focus for them. In most cases, 75 per cent of the channel time has been allocated to promote Modi. In my view, media is getting openly biased and is acting as an agent.”
Gurbir Singh, Senior Associate Editor, Businessworld added here, “Media has made up its mind on Narendra Modi. We have seen paid news like never before, and the number of complaints before the Election Commission has risen. The trend is worrisome as power play is being witnessed. I also think the quality of analysis by news channels has gone down considerably. Reportage is not adding much value to the news. Although the coverage is vast, it lacks depth.”
The 2014 elections have been different from the past elections in many ways. Firstly, this is the first time that social media and digital advertising has been extensively used by the who’s who of politics. Social media platform has been a big influence on the first time voters and online platforms have become a new social point for discussing political issues. In many cases, the lead anchors of news channels have been communicating their programme agendas through Twitter. Also, in such cases opinions are sourced through Twitter and are selectively tweeted live on-air.
Many political figures have engaged in mud-slinging, hate speeches and personal statements. These controversies become fresh fodder for the news channels as every small controversy is made into a big story.
According to John Thomas, a retired journalist and journalism teacher, scarcity of manpower is the prime reason for this problem. He remarked, “Television has faced 2014 with a manpower reduction as compared to 2009. So, there has not been the same level of extensive coverage and travel. Without multi staff news bureaus in all the major state capitals any more, the main channels resorted to their star anchors going to some metropolitan centres to film discussion sessions to get a semblance of contrast of opinions. However, Rajya Sabha TV and Lok Sabha TV have provided fairly exhaustive and balanced discussion panels from different parts of the country.”
Thomas further said, “The media coverage may seem noisier because of the social and commercial media noise orchestrated by the BJP to build up Modi as PM candidate, which required a very long lead time.”
Reliance on prime time debates is another aspect on which news channels have relied heavily. Almost all the national news channels have a debate in the prime time with the lead anchor and minimum four people in the panel which are usually spokespersons of their respective parties. In this phase therefore the guest desk of every news channel becomes very important as in the end it all depends on who got whom for the debate. Reportedly demand for well networked people on the guest desk has surged during the past few months.
What do broadcasters think?
Sections of people belonging to the television news genre we spoke to have completely denied any claim of personality driven coverage or paid news.
Vikram Chandra, Group CEO, NDTV said, “The number of people who go out and report from ground zero has been growing at NDTV. As far as coverage is concerned we are getting bashing from all parties be it BJP, Congress or AAP which justifies our neutral and unbiased stand. I find it interesting when people say about personality driven coverage as a while ago same people used to accuse us as pro-congress. Half the time they say we are anti-modi, and half the time they say we are pro-Modi. The confusion among people is good for us as it justifies that there is no agenda which exists.”
Avinash Pandey, COO, ABP News mentioned, “Television is a clear reflection of the way society functions. The medium is evaluated, judged every minute. We are covering news which is relevant and what people want to see, be it Congress, BJP, AAP, or any other regional party. These allegations of paid news are therefore baseless. Secondly, in 2014 there are many news channels which are covering the national elections. Since the number of channels has increased and every channel is covering some news or another, naturally the overall time increases. TV is a dynamic medium which has to deliver daily. Paid news is a menace and nobody that I know is engaged in any activity like that.”
Most news channels have also grabbed a larger share of the advertising pie than they used to in normal scenarios. Since December, brands have also increased spends over the news genre and this is likely to sustain till the verdicts are out. Every channel is trying to project itself as the most reliable, authentic and on the top of developments.
Whether the approach and content of news channels is accepted by the audience or not will only be decided by time; the debate over the relevance and credibility of the coverage is likely to sustain in all quarters.