Why should journalists make election predictions?

This is a twist to the question: “Why did the media not see the Bhartiya Janata Party juggernaut in the Uttar Pradesh elections?”

Actually nobody saw it and one wonders even if the victors had a sense of the sweep they were eventually to make. A few of the more perceptive journalists in the English media did say after the halfway mark that the lotus seemed to be blooming in UP, but even they did not see any “wave”.

The exit polls too were not on the mark. All saw the BJP emerging as the single largest party but only two saw the BJP getting to between 10%-20% of the final tally.

It may seem a strange situation that even as the tools for collecting information have expanded and the speed of communication has vastly increased, the reporter has not been able to get a better sense of the election outcome.

We can’t blame the Indian media alone for this so-called failure. The situation is the same even in the United States, where almost nobody among either the reporters or the polling agencies got a sense that Donald Trump was going to win in November 2016. It was the same at the time of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, a few months earlier.

The Indian press has always had its hits and misses in making predictions, both in the national and state elections. What is new in recent years is the carpet bombing coverage – and predictions. Earlier we had pre-poll forecasts, then the exit polls. The number has increased and so too the predictions of the talking heads on TV.

I cannot recall if anyone has done an analysis of elections forecasts (both of polls and reporters’ predictions) after the event, but my hunch would be that there is a 50-50 record or something close to that. Not something to be proud about, but not a bad one either.

Why the media gets it wrong

What we saw in Uttar Pradesh then is nothing new. Two main reasons have been suggested for the media not getting it right in UP. One is that the media, the English-language media in particular, has a strong anti-Modi bias that prejudices their judgement. There may be an element of truth in that. But recall Delhi and Bihar in 2015. The media did not get the anti-BJP mood there either. If there is a powerful anti-Modi brigade in the media (I doubt it. If indeed there is a slant, it is in the other direction), they did not rush to dump the BJP in those two states. Another view is that journalists have become plain lazy and stick to the dhabas on the highways and their taxi drivers to give them information. That, however, is an easy way to dismiss the work reporters put in and reveals the observer’s own prejudices.

After UP, commentary in the media has tried to grapple with the media’s “failure”. There was this article in Scroll.in itself which berated social media for the pressures it imposed on reporters, and this other article in The Times of India which looked at the failure but could not give definite reasons for why it happened.

There is perhaps no easy explanation for why the media is getting it wrong (It is not consistently wrong though; sometimes it does get it right as in Assam in 2016).

Why predict at all?

Instead of looking for ways to improve reporters’ ability to pick winners, maybe we should pose a different question: Should the media give up on offering predictions? Should reporters in particular steer clear of making forecasts?

It is hard enough to gauge the mood in a single electoral constituency. It is incredibly difficult to do so for an entire state with a minimum of 70-100 constituencies. And it is impossible for a large state like UP. Will we not be better off with reporters telling us what voters are concerned about and their aspirations, the changes they have seen since the last elections and their expectations from the elected representatives?

This may be “boring” stuff, but it is surely more valuable and “truthful”. Scroll.in had this fascinating series “A Village Votes” from Supriya Sharma, reporting from one village over a couple of months. The series did look at electoral preferences but fought shy of making predictions. The more interesting reporting was of how different social and economic groups viewed their lives and what they expected from the government. (In somewhat of an irony, the constituency in which the village falls saw the BJP come fourth in the polls.)

In general, Scroll.in fortunately stayed away from the forecast business. It did summarise the exit polls’ predictions. But its reporters did not claim to be able to see the outcome. Occasionally they slipped – like this piece, which in early February forecast an Aam Aadmi Party victory in Punjab. As an earlier column pointed out, the better pieces in Scroll.in’s coverage were the ones with reporting and the not-so-good ones were those with commentary.

Post-election results, Scroll.in has come up with some interesting commentary as in this article and also this one. There has been some useful data mining too. But all this is after the event. What about before the next round of elections?

Part of the problem is that readers also want to know, “who is going to win?” And they think reporters should know. (When the reporters get it wrong, they are, of course, criticised for not knowing.) This puts pressure on reporters to come up with predictions, and reporters too are loath to give up this one moment in the electoral sun when they are cloaked with the power of possessing deep insights into the electoral process.

It will probably never happen but the reader and the reporter would both be the richer for it if they looked for a different kind of electoral reporting. Otherwise we will forever be asking what went wrong.

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