Bonkers over Bihar: How media got the numbers so horribly different and why

Why did all the channels have different numbers?
Bonkers over Bihar: How media got the numbers so horribly different and why
Bonkers over Bihar: How media got the numbers so horribly different and why
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Listening to some of the Hindi news channel anchors reporting on the Bihar elections, one would think that the world was coming to an end, there was such urgency in their voices. The English channels weren’t far behind.

It's understandable, it's the Bihar elections. With thousands of tweets every hour on the #BiharElections hashtag, the sheer flow of information and opinions is astounding. But neither an excess of information nor incompetence, is the reason that media houses are reporting different trends, which have often been contradictory.

There are several reasons for this (more on that later), and someone on Twitter did try pointing out one, but it has been lost in the wave of tweets that have flooded the micro-blogging platform. Here’s someone who pointed out contradictions between two influential media owned by the same group:

A lot of people said that these trends were very confusing here's one. The Indian Express even did a story on how confusing the numbers released by television channels were. 

Here's a look at what the fuss was all about. A sample of what different media houses were saying at aroundn 9.30 am 


This was the Indian Express at around 9.45 am

But NDTV took the cake this time. Within an hour of counting, the channel had given the NDA a lead of around 30 seats in comparison with other channels.

With the errors obvious and pointed out by Twitterati, NDTV took notice and corrected it. Soon, Prannoy Roy began to discuss the discrepancy with panellists on the channel Shekhar Gupta, Yogendra Yadav and others.

Someone drew a comparison between CNN-IBN and NDTV:

At around 9 am, Barkha Dutt said NDTV called the election. 

Then around 11 am, she said this, on Twitter:

So why did media houses have such different numbers?

The answer is a mix of two things - a combination of field reporting, and the other sources which media houses rely on. The primary source of information for media houses during elections are their own reporters on the ground, if they have them. When a media house does not have its own reporters in the field, they either rely on news agencies, who depute reporters to cover the event if they do not already have staff on the ground, or election data agencies.

Reporters on the ground have contacts with other journalists and stringers in rural areas who would collect information and pass it on. Journalists often report from election booths, and directly relay numbers as and when officials release them. Journalists naturally give those numbers to their offices instead of waiting for the ECI to officially release them.

Lastly, there are figures put out by the Election Commission of India which has a counter. This incidentally, let to a hilarious situation soon after counting began. When channels had two-digit figures, ECI just had a big fat egg for most parties. However, it soon caught up.

The tiers of coordination that any breaking news story involves, means that information from all these sources is used, resulting in differences.

On Monday, a report in The Hindu added more clarity to why some channels were off the charts when it came to the early trends. Market research agency Neilsen had been contracted by many media houses to provide data. The Hindu report said that the agency had its staff in 42 counting booths.

The Hindu said: 

"As trends emerged, they were relayed to channels. The first to be counted are the postal ballots and these are in the region of a couple of thousands. When the voting machines are opened, the numbers leap by couple of thousands. The confusion, channels say, perhaps was in the failure of Nielson to clarify the difference between postal ballot and the counting on EVM machines. “From past experience, we know that postal ballot usually gives a lead to the BJP and this may have caused the channels to jump to early conclusions,” said a news broadcaster."

Well, Twitter sends up a lot of good humour, and here's signing off with two such LOL moments:

(This story was last updated on Monday. It was first published on Sunday afternoon.)

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