The media free-for-all: Why studio pundits were foxed by numbers on Bihar election counting day

Instant punditry has its pitfalls. It makes people forget that patience has many uses, the most important being it spares you from looking stupid.

Some in the know-it-all crowd in the television studios don’t get it at all, but when experienced journalists like Shekhar Gupta and Prannoy Roy start trip up it becomes a matter of grave concern.

 The media free-for-all: Why studio pundits were foxed by numbers on Bihar election counting day

Representational image. AFP

It’s about an hour into counting on Sunday, November 8, and very early trends showing on television channels say that the NDA is squarely in the lead. Of course, that is just the general direction in which they suggest the race is going. But that’s where the similarity ends. Each channel has its own figures, some showing NDA allies leading by a dozen seats while others, notably the more sedate and reliable NDTV, are showing the NDA running away with it with more than double the leads of its rival formation, the Grand Alliance. And it’s hardly an hour into counting.

Then the talking heads in all channels go ballistic. Nitish, we are told by NDTV panelists (as brilliantly captured by Mukul Kesavan in The Telegraph), had lost touch with the masses. There was a backlash to his ill-treatment of Jitan Ram Manjhi; and yes, his parting ways with the BJP in 2013 was political harakiri. Sometime later the trend changes, showing the Grand Alliance is ahead. The same panelists sing an entirely different tune.

Somewhere amid all this Barkha Dutt tweets that the BJP is going to secure around 145-149 seats; then goes on to tell that it is her personal assessment, then she says the numbers showing up on different channels are too confusing. Surely, the numbers were confusing – barring CNN-IBN no other channel was consistent on this – but why jump to conclusions? They have the experience of counting days and are quite familiar with the yo-yo quality the numbers assume during counting. Why cannot they be a bit more patient? It’s certainly better that looking silly.

The question that begs answer then is: If all of the channels were giving us the latest trends for the same election, why were their figures so varied? What was their source of information? For every official event, there can be two sources: the official agency tasked with that event, which in this case was he Election Commission of India, and the individual channel’s own news gathering resources. The Election Commission’s numbers are solid as they should be, but they follow their own official rigmarole of multiple levels of counting, validation and certification before a trend is updated on its site. This is unacceptable to the news channels that seek to beat one another in being the fastest.

Screengrab from Twitter

Screengrab from Twitter

This race to being the fastest is a perfectly legitimate business necessity. But speed without accuracy means nothing. And accuracy has its own demands news organisations. It takes a lot of doing. The Indian Express hit the nail on the head when it analysed the reason why CNN-IBN was the only channel that got the trends right: “CNN-IBN relied on inputs from the ground sent in by 243 reporters, mostly from the ETV network, who sourced the numbers from counting centres before the EC released them. And the channel was reliably and credibly ahead in the game, calling the election in favour of the Mahagathbandhan at 10.03 am, when the experts in (Arnab) Goswami’s studio were marvelling at being fairly bamboozled, and NDTV was declaring that they had never seen a poll like this.”

If the path to the ultimate result (the number of seats won by each party) are so divergent and channels can throw up all kinds of non-facts and imaginary figures at us in such an important event, it numbs the mind to think that this might not be the only event when this media free-for-all plays out.

(CNN-IBN and Firstpost are part of the Network18 Group)

Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.

Updated Date: Nov 09, 2015 19:42:16 IST