Through the Looking-Glass

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

There’s no question that 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. 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 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 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 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?

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