The past few months have been very charged politically here in Nepal. The dissolution and thae subsequent reinstatement of the House of Representatives, the internal rift in the ruling Nepal Communist Party that took an unexpected turn when the Supreme Court’s order restored the former UML and Maoist (Centre) and split the party and the near-daily political developments have kept journalists busy. Now, ain an ideal world, the press would be able to report on every single event of every single faction and party. But we do not live in an ideal world and media organisations have to make careful decisions about where and how to allocate their limited resources. This means that some people and issues get covered a lot more than others.
Now, the Nepali audience is quick to cry foul on this. A section of the public always feels wronged by the prominence their preferred individual or entity is getting or not getting. They allege corruption, vested interests and bias. But, in reality, media coverage is driven by a much more mundane factor – economics. In the highly competitive 24/7 news cycle, news organisations prefer to put out stories that drive traffic. Some people, because of their reputation, stature and/or tendency to generate controversy, bring in more viewers than others and hence, get more media space.
Similarly, the media of 2021 seek to deliver analyses and context rather than just straight facts because people can get straight facts from the internet. Thanks to social media, by the time the media gets to reporting a story, it is already old. Citizens have already found out everything there is to find out and are ready to move on to the next big thing. So, reporters and editors try to “go beyond the headlines” and give their readers the “inside scoop,” interpret the actions and motivations of the people and hypothesise on their potential course of action. This again favours some individuals over others because, by virtue of their position or personality, they are more consequential to society than others and demand more “analysis” than others.
So, now the question is, why does it matter? Some parties are more prominently featured in the media while some are not. So what? (Note that prominence does not mean favourable coverage. It simply means the space certain entities get in the media. A large space devoted to criticising them can still be counted as prominence.) Well, in the case of political leaders, the media’s coverage has a huge impact on public perception.
It may be hard to believe but a simple name recognition can go a long way in establishing a leader. A person that gets repeatedly covered by the media, whether favourably or unfavourably, becomes a household name. People recognise him and his name and become familiar with his policies and platform. A person that does not get covered as much becomes invisible. The people do not know them and cannot relate to them.
This visibility and invisibility play a huge role during elections because while casting their votes, people will choose to go with the devil they know rather than the saint they don’t. That is why in Nepal, people are often seen complaining about the nature of the mainstream political parties but still voting for them at the ballot. They do not like the popular parties but they choose them anyway because they are the only ones they know about.
Media coverage, or the lack thereof, can have a huge impact. They can establish a person’s persona and create a sense of familiarity that can help parties win elections.
However, with the advent of social media, some believe that traditional media institutions are losing their impact.