While doing a summer internship at an Indian news studio, I was assigned the task of watching a week’s worth of news debates. I knew that a few channels like Republic would biased, but I was shocked by the reality of prime time news debates. The boring Doordarshan news broadcast of my parent’s childhood that my elders used to complain about seemed like high-quality news in comparison.
News debates or panel discussions claim to bring together people from across the political spectrum to get differing views on an issue. Aired at prime time, they attract large, regular audiences. This audience, often 60-70% bigger than for any other news show due to the prime slot, values the debate format for providing a balanced view. For many, news debates shape opinions on socio-political issues. A paper by Holz-Akin-Jamieson in the US showed that 29% of Americans found debates most helpful in deciding how to vote, versus only 13% for broadcast interviews and seeing candidates in person.
At first glance, many of these news debates seem evenly contested. News channels have a variety of representatives from different political backgrounds so that they can claim to be holding an unbiased debate. Some try and give equal speaking time to people with different views.
However, the host surreptitiously ends up colouring the viewer’s opinion. This often begins before the debate, with hosts giving introductions that paint the issue to favour one side or favour the opinion of certain panellists. In a recent debate about how much power the police should have to enforce a lockdown, the host’s introduction only addressed a few isolated incidents in which healthcare workers or policemen were attacked by violent groups, and ignored the widespread police violence that had taken place against innocent individuals because of the additional powers they had been granted.x
Additionally, panellists are selected to skew the debate, with channels deliberately picking panellists for one side who are weaker than those on the other, making it easy to disregard one opinion. This problem was also seen in the US, where the concept of news debates originated. In their show ‘Left-Right’, FOX News deliberately selected the liberal Colmes after selecting the conservative Sean Hannity, knowing that Colmes was no match for Hannity.
Further, hosts often interact with the panellists to enable one side to prevail by being laxer in imposing time limits on people from one side, or by asking them more questions which give them more speaking time. They also often use labels to delegitimize views that they disagree with. For example, liberal views are often painted with the label of ‘Khan market gang’ to disregard the views as elitist, and criticisms of the government are labelled as part of the “tukde-tukde” narrative to ensure that criticising the government is seen as ‘anti-national’.
Finally, the anchor’s summary of the debate has a large impact. Anchors often choose to omit certain points or represent points in a biased manner to suit the narrative they support. Numerous statistics show that post-debate analysis is critical in deciding how viewers saw the debate. An Arizona State University experiment showed that when viewers were shown a 2004 debate between John Kerry and George W. Bush with CNN’s post-debate analysis, 43% thought that Kerry had won however when viewers were shown the same debate with NBC’s post-debate analysis, 50% thought that Bush had won.
While biased news reporting is problematic, biased debates, with the ability to colour opinions and swing votes, stand as a threat to democracy. We need the media to take its rightful place as the fourth pillar of democracy and report the news to allow people to form their own opinions, instead of stuffing the government’s narrative down our throats.