UP Elections: How Reliable On-the-Ground Reporting? Part1-Introduction

Thursday, March 02, 2017

One of France’s leading newspapers has given up on public opinion polls ahead of France’s presidential election in April, and its reasoning, it says, comes down to two recent, unforeseen events: President Trump and Brexit. Stephane Albouy, Le Parisien’s editor-in-chief, said that they

want to avoid giving the sort of commentary that accompanies a horse race, always focusing on who is in the lead.  Commissioning opinion polls now is useless because they will have no bearing on the final result. This doesn’t mean that we are against polling, but we prefer to focus our political analysis based on what we see and capture on the ground, rather than rely on opinions that have yet to fully develop over the course of the campaign.”

Coincidentally, with the Election Commission ban on publication of exit polls of the on-going long drawn out 7 Phase UP elections, those interested to track the electoral battle had no option but forced to depend entirely upon on-the-ground reporting. Unfortunately, exceptions aside, most of this on-the-ground reporting seen so far tends to ape the pollsters’ favourite horserace format that provides the framework for analysis where a horse is judged not by its own absolute speed or skill, but rather by its comparative speed of other horses, and especially by its wins and losses.

Like opinion polls, media outlets have often resorted to horse-race journalism with the intent of making elections appear more competitive than they are to spur their readership or to favour a political party who they are aligned to. They often take to politically handicapping stronger candidates or hyping dark horse contenders to influence public perceptions and in turn voter behaviour. Very often their reports have the same effect of push polls that are designed more to influence voters’ opinions rather than measure them. And we may have seen them all this elections. 

Like pollsters most of these feed on the hunger of their readership for certainty, setting off expectations that are basically impossible to meet. The thing is voters are inherently unpredictable. Yet, we see as if by led by strong compulsive pressure, on-the-ground journalists tend to be compelled to tell us who is going to triumph at the polls than try to understand and capture what is going on at ground level and the mindset of voters. Rather than sticking to reporting, the emphasis shifts on more commentary, which is basically subjective reasoning than hard evidence. Extrapolating macro trends from often unrepresentative sample of respondents at the micro level slips them immediately into hazardous journalism zone. Nevertheless when these journalists also dip into their storytelling toolbox, the net effect often makes their reports any day much more fascinating and insightful reading than the mere numbers pollsters bombard us. They give us additional information such as revealing the factors, motivations, and reason why particular groups of people support which candidate or party and how these factors are likely to play out in their opinion.

Two of the much followed on-the-ground reports are of Prashant Jha, Associate Editor Hindustan Times and Shivam Vij, Deputy Editor, HuffingtonPost. Prashant Jha appears more a prolific writer, penning more articles that slants more on commentaries and opinions that reflect certainty while Shivam Vij appears to adopt a more cautious reporting slant, fewer articles but adopts a more engaging style with his readers by his tweets, retweets and FaceBook conversations. 

Prashant Jha comes across as more inclined towards BJP while Shivam Vij is mostly considered independent. However, both during the election trail appeared to face some backlash from readers who accused them of political partisan writings, forcing them to defend themselves. Though some overlap of opinions between them are noticeable, there are also significant differences of perceptions and inferences  between the two however nuanced. While Jha appeared more prepared to play the game of certainty, Shivam Vij openly admitted that he was unable in this instance to meet the expectations of certainty but still manage to retain his reputation as one of sharpest among journalists on capturing the mood of the people.

While pollsters lend themselves easily to be evaluated for their accuracy through comparisons between their predictions and actual results, a similar method could be applied to on-the-ground reports of journalists if all their reports - articles, tweets, retweets are compiled as sort of a journal of their on-the-ground-report trail.  

For benefit of readers who are keen to assess the reliability of on-the-ground reports, we have compiled a month journal entries of Prashant Jha and Shivam Vij 

Read Part 2: UP Elections: How Reliable On-the-Ground Reporting? The Prashant Jha Journal (Click HERE)
Read Part 3: UP Elections: How Reliable On-the-Ground Reporting? The Shivam Vij Journal (Click HERE)

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