How West Bengal media covered the 2019 election
Dr. Enakshi Roy
Assistant Professor, Western Kentucky University, USA:
With 42 Lok Sabha seats, the voters of West Bengal have always had a significant role to play in the general elections in India. The 2019 election was particularly important for West Bengal as Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee was seen as a likely Prime Minister candidate if there was a possibility of forming a coalition government at the Centre. But the BJP ended up winning 18 parliamentary seats in West Bengal, its biggest win so far in the State. The media here covered the elections with much enthusiasm, though on occasions, both Bengali and English media were observed to have aligned themselves along partisan lines.
I examined the two leading English dailies in West Bengal, namely The Telegraph (TT) and The Times of India (ToI) Kolkata editions to identify the key themes that emerged in their election coverage. The Telegraph, owned by the ABP Group, was first published in 1982 and is considered a staple in most households in West Bengal. The Times of India launched its Kolkata edition in the early 2000s and has gained popularity among readers with its all-coloured editions and catchy graphics. While one might assume that these English dailies are similar in coverage, on close analysis one can find differences along ideological, political and editorial lines.
I looked at all the stories that were published from May 15 to May 24 and had a Kolkata or a West Bengal dateline. Each story (including images and infographics) was considered as one unit of analysis. A total of 175 stories were analyzed, 59 fromThe Telegraph and 116 from The Times of India. May 15 was selected as the starting date for this analysis because on May 14 there was a violent clash in Kolkata between TMC and BJP workers leading to the vandalizing of a statue of Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Bengali stalwart and education activist from the 1800s. The incident garnered a lot of media attention, and as per some poll observers may have slightly altered how Kolkata cast its votes. Following this incident, to curb further instances of violence, the Election Commission of India cut back campaigning in the State by two days. Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, voted in the final phase of elections on May 19.
I looked at nine variables, 1) reporting on poll-related violence, 2) news related to the Election Commission, 3) reporting on candidates, 4) news on Left parties (CPI, CPM), 5) election issues, 6) news of vote in Kolkata, 7) voting as a democratic right, 8) Us vs. Them framing, and 9) poll results.
It was found that 17% of the stories in TT and 24% of the stories in ToI were about incidents of violence around the election. However, in TT the coverage of violence was more restricted to the vandalism incident on May 14, whereas ToI also reported on election-day violence. Regarding stories about the Election Commission, TT carried around 15% of its stories related to EC’s regulation or ineffectiveness, while ToI had 6% of its stories about the EC. As for candidates, there was a marked difference in how the two papers covered them. It was noticed TT did almost thrice as many stories (24%) on prominent candidates like Mamata Banerjee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP national president Amit Shah, compared to ToI (8.5%). However, when it came to focusing on other candidates, ToI did more stories (22%) on them than TT (17%). The Times of Indiahad a segment called ‘Candidate Watch’, which focused on particular candidates. When it came to covering the Left Front, the erstwhile ruling party of West Bengal, both papers had only one story each on them; besides, ToI had very few stories on the CPM candidate Bikas Ranjan Bhattacharya. As far as covering specific issues of the elections, ToI again did a better job with 6 % stories compared to 3% similar stories in TT. As far as the voting in Kolkata on May 19, ToI again did a better job with 16 % stories over 11% stories in TT. Yet again ToI had a varied range of stories, from the weather to liquor sales in the city on Election Day. The Telegraph’s stories were more focused on how the city was preparing for the vote count. The ‘Us versus Them’ was thought to be a big issue this election, but there were only three stories in our entire sample that were on this topic. One big theme that was there in ToI coverage but missing from TT stories was about ‘exercise in democracy’, for instance, stories about the third gender voting for the first time, or special voting booth for disabled persons. Nearly 15% of ToI stories that were analyzed reflected this theme. These were often the anchor stories. As far as covering the election results, 12% of stories in TT and 13% of stories in ToI show that both the papers had a similar focus on the outcome.
While this analysis is based on a limited sample and a small timeframe, it still finds a few critical differences in how these two papers covered the elections.The Telegraph’s coverage was political leader driven and almost alienated other candidates and issues. The Times of India, on the other hand, had focused on issues, candidates, constituencies, how the voting was impacting the metropolitan city Kolkata, and focusing on the act of voting and a fundamental democratic right. Such a wide range of topics made ToI’s coverage more balanced than TT. In recent times TT has had its credibility questioned for aligning itself with the TMC party. This partisan coverage of TT is perhaps reflected through maintaining a narrow focus through stories like the ineptness of the Election Commission, not covering enough issues that are relevant to the public, and stories of selective few party candidates.