Bihar: Pollsters, News Channels in the Dock Again

Gurbir Singh

Pollsters and news channels again have egg all over their faces. The exit poll results aired after the last round of counting for the Bihar assembly elections on 5 November were way off the mark. Two of them rooted for Modi and the NDA, with Today’s Chanakya-News24 predicting a landslide – 155 for the BJP alliance, and 83 for the Nitish Kumar-led Grand Alliance. The other four poll surveys predicted the Nitish alliance would win with a wafer-thin majority. ABP-A.C.Nielsen gave Nitish Kumar 130 seats of the 243-seat assembly, News Nation predicted 120-124.

Such a split verdict between these poll pundits left viewers confused, and the Indian Express did well to advise its readers: You have to wait till Sunday 8 November, counting day, to know who will win. As we all know now, all the surveys were wrong, with the Nitish-Lalu combine trouncing the BJP group 178-58. The one exit poll that got it right,  Axis Ad-Print Media which forecast 169-183 for the Grand Alliance, was never aired as its channel partner, CNN-IBN, was too mortified to broadcast results so severely slanted against the BJP. To be fair Yogendra Yadav’s Lokniti-CSDS study predicted, without hazarding seat guesstimates, that there was a 4 percent swing against the BJP alliance in the run up to the polls, that would ensure a Nitish-Lalu victory.

What followed on counting day, 8 November, was even more embarrassing for the news channels. Till 9.30 am, the country believed that Narendra Modi had won. ABP News gleefully headlined: ‘Modi Wave Sweeps Bihar’. By 8.30 am NDTV’s roomful of ‘psephologists’ – Dr Prannoy Roy, Dorab Sopariwala and Shekhar Gupta – had declared BJP the ‘winner’ with 140 seats. The only national network that steadfastly maintained that the Grand Alliance was romping home with a huge margin was ETV. By 10 am the situation dramatically turned when these channels began realizing that their data had gone horribly wrong.

Apologize they did for their double whammy, but couched in ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’; when really they should be forced to pay the cable/DTH bills of each their viewers for a month or accept shut-down for a similar period for have wasted the peoples’ time and mindspace with garbage.

Chanakya apologized, but with an ‘explanatory’ email saying: “A simple computer template coding marking the alliances got interchanged. Due to this our seat numbers remained the same but respective alliances got interchanged.” (sic) For the mess on counting day, NDTV’s Prannoy Roy also apologized; but with an explanation: they also got it wrong in Greece, Turkey, the UK and even the US’ Gallup polls, and a ‘globally renowned agency’ fed us wrong data.

When so much is riding on elections, news channels carrying exit polls are responsible to ensure the sample size and the sub-text are robust enough. Checks and counter-checks have to ferret out any attempt at a deliberate foul up. There is deep suspicion that crunched budgets and lack of resources make these poll agencies cut corners on both the sample size and training of their field staff. What however cannot be forgiven is lack of due diligence of the agencies – in the case of Bihar it was A C Nielsen – hired for sourcing data on counting day. Why can’t news channels deploy their own reporters at counting centres? Or, is it the scramble for one-upmanship, and trying to be ahead even of EC data, that lead to this awful goof-up?

This is the ultimate truth: News channels exposed what everyone suspected so far. They are ill-equipped to handle news reporting that requires technology and specific training and skills; and they are not committing the money and resources necessary to bring the news truthfully and speedily to their viewers.

Hard news cannot be replaced by screaming panellists in the ‘News Hour’ baying for each other’s blood.

First carried in Business World


Mumbai Press Club
Article posted on 23/11/2015

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