Through the Looking-Glass

The Readers’ Editor writes: Reporting vs commentary at the time of elections

There’s no question that Scroll.in and its readers will be better off with pure reporting and without pure commentary.

Elections are when the media turns its gaze on the hinterland. Reporters take to the road to gauge the mood of the electorate. Alongside these reports, we also have political commentators trying to make sense of electoral alliances and strategies. The bolder among them venture to tell us who is going to triumph at the polls.

Scroll.in has been extensively reporting on the current round of state elections, first in Punjab and Goa, then on the first phase of the polls in Uttar Pradesh, and right now on Uttarakhand. More will come, with reports on the campaigns in Manipur and during the next six phases of polling in Uttar Pradesh.

Over the past fortnight Scroll.in has published more than a dozen articles on different aspects of the election campaign in Uttar Pradesh, focussing on the West where polling took place over the weekend. Taking these as examples, what could readers learn from the reporting and commentary in these articles?

The short answer is a lot from articles based on reports from the ground and not much from commentary based on a second-hand understanding of politics in this politically-crucial northern state.

Hits and misses

Take this fascinating article on how sugarcane shapes not just the economy of western Uttar Pradesh but also voter decisions. The problems of sugarcane farmers, the changes taking place in the sugarcane economy, and the indifference of governments are all put together to understand the election dynamics in the region. The reporter, Shoaib Daniyal, fortunately does not try to make poll forecasts. He does not need to, he lets the reporting tell its own story.

Political commentators tend to reduce voter choices to caste and religion. Both are important but the more discerning reporters tell us that things are never so black and white. Take this report from a village (part of an ongoing series on how one village in Uttar Pradesh is going to vote) which suggests that there is no such thing as a Muslim bloc of votes. Or this one that looks at the tenuousness of the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Dalit-Muslim alliance, an analysis based on what a sample of rural voters say about the past and current relations between the two groups

There have been other fine reports in the past fortnight, such as this article on why despite the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013, Muslims in the area continue to support the ruling Samajwadi Party, and this piece about the simmering voter anger against notebandi and this excellent report-cum-analysis of the bind the Bharatiya Janata Party may have found itself in ahead of the polls across the state.

A ground report does not by itself make for high quality. A report on whether a new police response service in Uttar Pradesh could help the Samajwadi Party retain support seemed to project a lot without much evidence on to a small development.

Distant commentary

Political commentary based on a second-hand understanding (I hesitate to use the critical and slightly derogatory phrase, “armchair analysis”) is slightly tricky. I would say that the quality of such commentary in Scroll.in comes a distant second to the reporting. Here for instance are two articles (this one and this one) assessing the impact of a statement by an official of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that questioned the need to continue with reservations. The two come to different conclusions. One of them argues that unlike in Bihar where only caste matters (where a similar remark in 2015 had a negative impact on the BJP’s electoral fortunes), in Uttar Pradesh both caste and religion matter and the impact of a statement on caste reservations alone is therefore limited. The other saw the RSS official’s statement as reflecting the BJP abandoning the Dalit vote in Uttar Pradesh. It is not that the conclusions are different, it is that neither article presents the voice of the voter (or members of the affected caste) in substantiating its arguments.

The absence of a richness in argument shows in other commentary like in this analysis that makes the conclusion that Rahul Gandhi made a mistake in giving more time to Uttar Pradesh and less to Punjab, and in this commentary on Congress nervousness in western Uttar Pradesh.

Pure reporting wins

In general, there’s no question that Scroll.in and its readers will be better off with pure reporting and without pure commentary. Opinion that tries to read the voter mind and comments on alliances, configurations and strategies is always taking the risky option. It is not a question of getting it right (or going wrong), it is a question of making an assessment without any hard evidence. And that is a disservice to the reader.

One looks forward to more of good reporting during the rest of the campaign in the state elections. But there is that question that is never answered: why does it take elections for reporters to hit the road to understand what is happening on the ground?

Readers can write to the Readers’ Editor at readerseditor@scroll.in.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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Some of the worst decisions made in history

From the boardroom to the battlefield, bad decisions have been a recipe for disaster

On New Year’s Day, 1962, Dick Rowe, the official talent scout for Decca Records, went to office, little realising that this was to become one of the most notorious days in music history. He and producer Mike Smith had to audition bands and decide if any were good enough to be signed on to the record label. At 11:00 am, either Rowe or Smith, history is not sure who, listened a group of 4 boys who had driven for over 10 hours through a snowstorm from Liverpool, play 15 songs. After a long day spent listening to other bands, the Rowe-Smith duo signed on a local group that would be more cost effective. The band they rejected went on to become one of the greatest acts in musical history – The Beatles. However, in 1962, they were allegedly dismissed with the statement “Guitar groups are on the way out”.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Decca’s decision is a classic example of deciding based on biases and poor information. History is full of examples of poor decisions that have had far reaching and often disastrous consequences.

In the world of business, where decisions are usually made after much analysis, bad decisions have wiped out successful giants. Take the example of Kodak – a company that made a devastating wrong decision despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Everyone knows that Kodak couldn’t survive as digital photography replaced film. What is so ironic that Alanis Morissette could have sung about it, is that the digital camera was first invented by an engineer at Kodak as early as 1975. In 1981, an extensive study commissioned by Kodak showed that digital was likely to replace Kodak’s film camera business in about 10 years. Astonishingly, Kodak did not use this time to capitalise on their invention of digital cameras – rather they focused on making their film cameras even better. In 1996, they released a combined camera – the Advantix, which let users preview their shots digitally to decide which ones to print. Quite understandably, no one wanted to spend on printing when they could view, store and share photos digitally. The Advantix failed, but the company’s unwillingness to shift focus to digital technology continued. Kodak went from a 90% market share in US camera sales in 1976 to less than 10% in 2012, when it filed for bankruptcy. It sold off many of its biggest businesses and patents and is now a shell of its former self.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few military blunders are as monumental as Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. The military genius had conquered most of modern day Europe. However, Britain remained out of his grasp and so, he imposed a trade blockade against the island nation. But the Russia’s Czar Alexander I refused to comply due to its effect on Russian trade. To teach the Russians a lesson, Napolean assembled his Grand Armée – one of the largest forces to ever march on war. Estimates put it between 450,000 to 680,000 soldiers. Napoleon had been so successful because his army could live off the land i.e. forage and scavenge extensively to survive. This was successful in agriculture-rich and densely populated central Europe. The vast, barren lands of Russia were a different story altogether. The Russian army kept retreating further and further inland burning crops, cities and other resources in their wake to keep these from falling into French hands. A game of cat and mouse ensued with the French losing soldiers to disease, starvation and exhaustion. The first standoff between armies was the bloody Battle of Borodino which resulted in almost 70,000 casualties. Seven days later Napoleon marched into a Moscow that was a mere shell, burned and stripped of any supplies. No Russian delegation came to formally surrender. Faced with no provisions, diminished troops and a Russian force that refused to play by the rules, Napolean began the long retreat, back to France. His miseries hadn’t ended - his troops were attacked by fresh Russian forces and had to deal with the onset of an early winter. According to some, only 22,000 French troops made it back to France after the disastrous campaign.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to sports, few long time Indian cricket fans can remember the AustralAsia Cup final of 1986 without wincing. The stakes were extremely high – Pakistan had never won a major cricket tournament, the atmosphere at the Sharjah stadium was electric, the India-Pakistan rivalry at its height. Pakistan had one wicket in hand, with four runs required off one ball. And then the unthinkable happened – Chetan Sharma decided to bowl a Yorker. This is an extremely difficult ball to bowl, many of the best bowlers shy away from it especially in high pressure situations. A badly timed Yorker can morph into a full toss ball that can be easily played by the batsman. For Sharma who was then just 18 years old, this was an ambitious plan that went wrong. The ball emerged as a low full toss which Miandad smashed for a six, taking Pakistan to victory. Almost 30 years later, this ball is still the first thing Chetan Sharma is asked about when anyone meets him.

So, what leads to bad decisions? While these examples show the role of personal biases, inertia, imperfect information and overconfidence, bad advice can also lead to bad decisions. One of the worst things you can do when making an important decision is to make it on instinct or merely on someone’s suggestion, without arming yourself with the right information. That’s why Aegon Life puts the power in your hands, so you have all you need when choosing something as important as life insurance. The Aegon Life portal has enough information to help someone unfamiliar with insurance become an expert. So empower yourself with information today and avoid decisions based on bad advice. For more information on the iDecide campaign, see here.

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This article was produced on behalf of Aegon Life by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.