In mid-September, two young men called me at my residence and introduced themselves as engineering (leather technology) students of Anna University. They said they wanted to choose journalism as their career after completing studies in the next two years. I was a bit surprised and asked them why. One of them said that they had been regular readers of The Hindu for the past few years and that they were so impressed and fascinated by newspaper articles that they decided to become journalists. I told them there was nothing wrong with their decision: science journalism was a growing and promising field, but they would need to be trained in journalism in a good institution, in addition to their academic qualification in science and technology. The training would give them the needed perspectives and skills, particularly the skill of writing with clarity.
Ten days later, on September 25, I received calls from a number of readers. They spoke highly of The Hindu’s lead story of the day, “Chandrayaan-1 finds traces of water on moon”, written by the Thiruvananthapuram-based Science Correspondent N. Gopal Raj. The appreciation was not so much for the spacecraft’s probe that found traces of water across the surface of large parts of the moon, demolishing the long-held view that the earth’s natural satellite was bone dry, as for the way the story was written.
Many readers said the story was simple and eminently readable. G. Krishnan, who has been a senior trainer of reporters at The Hindu (in news gathering, reporting, and writing), said in an email: “ The Hindu’s front-page story today by Gopal Raj about the discovery of traces of water on the moon is a clear and simple explanation of a complicated technical subject. It is a good example to give to young reporters about reporting scientific discoveries.”
Even a casual reading of the story would show that the correspondent has not diluted the content in his effort to present the story in a lucid style. (That is what happens most often.) While making it interesting and accessible to large sections of readers, he has not sacrificed the technical details. Nor has he compromised on accuracy and nuance. Surprisingly, the writer, who has a first degree in zoology, did his post-graduate work not in science, but in Far East Studies at the University of London. He also took a diploma in Sociology of the London School of Economics.
How then, with only a basic academic grounding in science, could he emerge as a skilled science writer? He said he did not undergo any formal training either. “So much of what I have learnt about science reporting has been by working on the job,” Gopal Raj explained modestly. When he went to Bangalore on transfer (1991-2001) he “wrote a great deal about the Indian space programme.” He was interested in the country’s rocket programme. (His book Reach for the Stars: The Evolution of India’s Rocket Programme was published by Penguin Books India in 2000.)
Science reporting for a daily newspaper is perhaps the most challenging of journalistic assignments. Even among science graduates and post-graduates, only a few opt for journalism as a career — and fewer stay on. Not many make a mark.
The major hurdle, of course, is the difficulty the reporter (with some assistance from the editorial desk) faces in presenting the story in a precise, simple, and readable form. This means avoiding excessive technical jargon and an array of statistics, which often stem the flow of the story and deter general readers from reading on.
This is not surprising in the context of the phenomenal advance of technology on one side and increasing specialisation in various fields of study on the other. Providing in-house training; conducting workshops to inculcate a better understanding of specific subjects and improve the writing skill of the journalist; creating opportunities for interaction with scientists and technologists — besides providing the journalist with the needed tools, this will go a long way in altering the situation favourably.
So what is needed is a fairly good understanding of the subject and the skill to present the story in readable form. Training will help. But as important is hard work, continuous exposure to the subject, acquiring domain knowledge, and improving the craft of writing over a period. Professional experience, or the yoga of doing this day in and day out, makes all the difference.