You’re watching a show on any of the news channels that we have access to at the depression of a remote control button. There’s a burning issue being debated, and the channel seeks to get a finger on the pulse of the country by conducting an SMS and/or e-mail poll.
So far, so good.
Within minutes of the programme starting, out pops a graphic showing the current status of the poll.
Let’s say it shows 87% for and 13% against the motion being discussed. The anchor draws attention to the graphic, and the panel discussion is now sidetracked by the “finding”.
How many people have actually seen the programme? No one knows. Hindsight and the Peoplemeter and aMap will prove it to register 1 or 2 TRPs.
How many people have voted at all? No one tells us.
How many people watched the programme and chose not to vote at all? No one tells us.
It wouldn’t matter too much if the question being asked was along the lines of “What’s your preferred colour… black or white?”
It does matter if the question being asked is “Should Afzal hang?” or “Is the Prime Minister soft on terrorists?” and such like.
It’s not TV alone that conducts these polls; newspapers, magazines and internet sites use similar polls, with a similar lack of transparency.
Maybe I don’t want Afzal to hang. But when I watch TV and discover that an astonishing 87% want him to go to the gallows, I stop and think: am I in such a minority?
I’m not. Because only a few hundred, perhaps a few thousand, would have bothered to send an SMS registering their “opinion”. And in a country as large as India, with one billion people as Pepsi and Standard Chartered Bank remind us, a few thousand is but a droplet in a an oceanling.
And since we’re so good at aping the West and at remixes, perhaps Indian media houses could take a leaf out of what western media houses do when conducting such polls.
They add a caveat that the poll reflects the opinion of only those who chose to poll and they clearly tell you the number of people who voted. Take a look at what CNN does on cnn.com.