Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat have had their Assembly elections. Another nine are in the pipeline in the states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland over the next one year before the country takes the plunge for the Lok Sabha polls in 2024. In the recent polls, apart from the political foes of the winners there was another big loser: the media.

Any veteran political editor or reporter is sure to pull his or her hair out, if they were to see the dismal scenario that prevailed when it came to ground reporting in the run up to the polls. Unfortunately, the sad part is that the same trend is expected to continue in the days to come as well.

There are many aspects to what was on display, particularly in Gujarat that is the vibrant business hub of the country that also contributes to advertising revenues for the local media.

The first that was starkly visible was the absence of field reporting. Come to think of it, it is election time and journalists are largely missing from the field. It is the time when a reporter can touch upon issues that otherwise hardly find space in the papers or news channels. But for that the reporters have to visit villages and localities in the cities to find out what the people have to say.

Instead, what was largely on display was the political statements, allegations and counter allegations made by politicians at public rallies. And even for that the reporters hardly went to the spot. This included the road shows of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The reliance instead was largely on the social media lives being dished out.

Any serious journalist worth his or her salt would agree that stories actually emerge by firsthand experience of the mood of the public, tone and tenor of the politicians present along with their body language besides the colour of the event that often give side stories. But all that stood ignored as copies were filed from the confines of the offices and social media updates were marked.

"Why go to the spot when only a straight non critical copy is expected by the editors? It is just a waste of time and energy besides incurring expenses on fuel," was a common refrain among reporters in Ahmedabad, as this reporter tried to understand what was going on.

Another disturbing aspect was the absence of reporters of some of the leading dailies from press conferences, particularly the ones held by the Congress. Again it is a well known fact that the press briefings go much beyond the reading out of statements by political; leaders.

It is an occasion to make them answer questions outside the ambit of what they have to say and also grill them. Here too many side stories emerge through informal chats after these briefings that can even be developed on later occasions. But if the reporters are not interacting with the politicians or chasing them, many stories are lost.

Besides, even if one has to criticise a political party with a preconceived mindset, one has to go and collect the material for doing so. But even this was not being done.

"We have eight reporters filing election related stories in Ahmedabad. Till the day of the polling only two of them had physically gone to cover two political events and one of these events was the briefing by Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR)," disclosed a senior media professional from a local paper.

So what was being filed for special election pages? Well, lots of data relates stories and stuff about the past elections. Some ground reports came from reporters in the region but they too had less political issue based and more of other content.

Interestingly it was mainly the youngsters from what has come to be known as 'alternative media' who were seen doing their jobs earnestly and with enthusiasm.

There are a couple of things that need to be pointed out about the Congress' media management. To begin with the party leaders were reluctant to give interviews individually on subjects outside the domain of the main topic of the briefing fearing the 'twisting of facts' that has come to be associated with several outlets known for partisan political stands. Second, the Congress leadership was regularly attacking the 'embedded media' of the ruling party and conveying things in a sharp tone to the reporters of such outlets.

An anecdote that needs to be shared here pertains to one of the top national dailies being published from the national Capital. The Gujarat correspondent of the paper on coming to know the arrival of Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot who was also in charge of Gujarat in Ahmedabad requested a senior leader to arrange an interview.

He was refused with the comment, "Did your paper even care to carry the news and photographs of Bharat Jodo Yatra that has been getting tremendous response on page one all these days. What was carried was the picture of Rahul Gandhi with Medha Patekar (Narmada Bachao Andolan activist) to rake up a political controversy."

There were several briefings that ended with leaders saying, "We know the compulsions of you reporters. You will file stories but they will not be carried for obvious reasons."

These things were unheard of in the past. "We have a clear set of dos and don'ts. We are not supposed to cover certain parties. We know there is a lot happening but we remain spectators enjoying the tamasha since we are not supposed to write about it," said a senior journalist of a leading publication when asked about the political pitch being raised by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

For the coverage of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the reliance was mainly on the handouts and social media updates dished out by the party. Only the photographers were there in the field.

"It is a compulsion of the television channels to take sound bites of prominent leaders that are played round the clock. We are supposed to just see them and use these bites. In the process, the objectivity gets lost as it is a one way flow of information," pointed out a veteran journalist.

A trend that has caught on is the senior journalists leaving their jobs to join public relations and corporate communications organisations. The reasons given by them are interesting.

"We have to do public relations even in the garb of journalists in newspapers or channels while being comparatively poorly paid. Why not do the same as public relations professionals? At least the shame and guilt are not there. We are honestly and sincerely performing our jobs here and know clearly what is expected of us," said a business journalist who had recently left a job in a daily.