May 31, 2009
TV Covered Polls For Viewers – Not Voters !
By Mukesh Jhangiani
United News of India
New Delhi (UNI) – Key social issues, law and governance took a back seat while television news channels focused on personalities and alliances in the 72-day run up to Poll 2009, a study reported today.
A count by CMS Media Lab shows that six of India’s leading news channels between them spent 25,266 minutes or about 421 hours airing election news in their 7PM-11PM slots between March 1 and May 11.
Analysing bulletins, the Lab found DD News, Aaj Tak, NDTV 24X7, Zee News, CNN-IBN and Star News spent more airtime on politics than on entertainment and sports– mainstays for ratings and revenues.
”Even though TV remains the popular medium of communication,” it appeared ”largely unsuccessful in shaping public opinion,” the study said.
It pointed out, for instance, how a campaign by some major media houses urging citizens to vote failed to motivate, keeping voter turnout low.
Issues Indians struggle with day in and day out– affordable food, housing, jobs, water, unbridled crime– blue-collar and white-collar, health, and social, economic and judicial inequities—barely got much attention.
— Notwithstanding green revolution or claims of self-sufficiency, affordable food remains an issue. Foodgrain availability has fallen to 152 kg per capita, 23 kg less than in the 1990s, an e-source says. Some 47 per cent of Indian children, the nation’s future, are estimated to suffer from under-nutrition. India ”accounts for 21 per cent of the under-five children dying in the world… (and) is home to nearly 40 per cent of all low birth weight babies in the developing World.” In eradicating hunger, India ranked 66th among 88 developing and transition nations two months ago. A Hunger Index 2008 published under the auspices of Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute highlighted ”the continued overall severity of the hunger situation in India. Most States have a ‘serious’ hunger problem, and one State, Madhya Pradesh, has an ‘extremely alarming’ hunger problem.” At least one manifesto pledged to enact a Right to Food law that guarantees citizens access to sufficient food.
— With experts estimating that barely six per cent of heinous offences end in convictions– letting 94 per cent offenders walk free while law-abiding victims suffer, crime is a major concern. A serious example of white-collar crime in a company curiously named Satyam surfaced shortly before elections when its founder proclaimed himself a fraud, possibly to escape severer jurisdictions. The revelation raises questions about inept regulatory system– be it boards of directors, auditors or registrars of companies, not to mention investigators. Indeed, authorities have yet to make clear their response or consequences for such perpetrators.
— Given a billion plus citizenry, the government acknowledges a deficit of 22.4 million houses. Authoritative sources say even 180 million dwellings in existence include 108 million in a dilapidated condition– unfit for healthy living. A television jingle some months ago cited the soaring prices of Delhi Development Authority flats as an accomplishment– rather than a criminal failure to ensure adequate housing. As the Law Commission recently pointed out, former President Zail Singh once suggested that no person in India be allowed to have more than one house– any extra houses given to the needy on installments.
Issues abound. Critics say when it comes to parity and justice, Indian governance, no matter the political label, has been long on talk, short on delivery.
But little of all that showed up in the election campaign or related coverage.
The study said the channels spent more airtime on politics but the bulk of it was ‘superficial,’ not hard news that might have informed, educated or influenced voters.
The channels gave politics 42.75 per cent news time– against usual 10-12 per cent, or 33 per cent in 2004 elections– but ”a major chunk of it remained superficial.”
Almost a third or 30.87 per cent of this time– 7,801 minutes or about 130 hours– was devoted to political personalities and another 10.62 per cent– 2,683 minutes or 45 hours– to alliance prospects.
Instant replays, trivialisation and reality formats– gimmicks to drive entertainment or sport viewership or television rating points and ad revenues– were liberally evident. The channels also played up hate speeches, verbal duels and bickering.
The overall coverage of elections ”bordered on entertainment” as issues were trivialized– instead of being clarified to help broaden perspectives and build opinion in public interest.
The study said the channels spent 10.62 per cent news time reporting political formations or breakups but barely 4.82 per cent on security, nuclear deal, jobs, development, governance, recession, farmers’ suicides and amenities.
Many key issues made just fleeting appearances– in talk shows and debates.
”Communication that could empower voters with vital information needed to make an informed decision was negligible,” it said.
Attention given to voting added up to 1,786 minutes or almost 30 hours or 7.07 per cent.
There was virtually no television coverage about electronic voting machines although there have been some complaints of possible malfunction or tampering.
‘’There was not even a cursory debate on the subject,’’ Lab spokesman Prabhakar told United News of India Special Correspondent Mukesh Jhangiani.
”Broadly stating,” the study said, ”there was a clear disconnect between the voters and the media, which was apparent in the coverage priorities of news channels.”
Skewed distribution of news time meant that insignificant issues ate up precious minutes that might have been used to air such pressing concerns as health, environment, water, electricity or roads.
The study showed the time spent on basic concerns– jobs, crime, housing, price rise, justice– was miniscule. Governance, education, infrastructure, not to mention the controversial nuclear deal with the United States, figured even less.
The six channels between them spent 414 minutes– 1.64 per cent– of airtime on corruption, an issue raised nationwide in the 1970s by veteran socialist Jayaprakash Narayan– and yet to be taken care of.
Even word that Indians have trillions of rupees stashed in secret Swiss accounts, posed as a poll issue by a novice party, Youth for Equality, failed to fire up coverage.
Almost equally little attention was paid to two of the most serious menaces– terrorism and criminalisation of politics– 314 minutes and 313 minutes– or 1.24 per cent of the coverage.
This, notwithstanding the spate of incidents, including the ghastly 26/11 Mumbai raid, nor the rising clamour against allowing lawbreakers to blend in with lawmakers.
Airtime spent on candidate selection or ticket distribution stories: 572 minutes or 2.26 per cent of the total.
A quick check by an activist group, Election Watch News, shows the number of electees facing criminal charges went up on May 16 from 128 in the 14th Lok Sabha to 153 in the 15th Lok Sabha.
As many as nine of them were appointed United Progressive Alliance Ministers.
A ‘positive’ aspect of the coverage, the study said, was DD news, NDTV 24X7 and Star News highlighting some serious neighbourhood issues– 7.37 per cent airtime.
The channels spent 1,361 minutes reporting on the Election Commission, 1,344 minutes, on opinion polls, 1,276 minutes, on parties’ campaigns and 605 minutes, on their strategies.
UNI MJ ATI AS1109