One more Deepavali, the Festival of Lights, has come and gone. That the celebration-related fire accidents were fewer than in the past and the resultant damage less in Tamil Nadu, and probably in other parts of the country also, is good news. It is not clear whether this was chiefly the result of people adhering strictly to the safety norms prescribed by the authorities. The steep rise in the prices of not only fireworks but also foodgrains and other essential commodities might have played a moderating, if not deterrent, role. What is heartening is that the precautionary measures publicised through the media seem to have helped keep fireworks enthusiasts in check and prevent accidents to a substantial extent. In recent years, scientists and environmentalists have also joined the campaign by highlighting the long-term health hazards of the expensive and dangerous entertainment when it goes over the top. Air pollution caused by the chemicals that crackers and sparklers contain, they say, poses a serious threat to the environment and to people's health.
The media's role in educating the people on these problems has received wide acclaim. The safety tips were comprehensive: keep infants away from fireworks, allow children to light sparklers or burst crackers only under the supervision of elders, keep the specified optimum distance from the site where crackers are burst, and so on. A 'dress code' was also suggested. The print media, including this newspaper have been fulfilling this social responsibility of giving wide publicity to these safety guidelines during the festival season in the public interest. However, slips do occur in the choice of pictures accompanying articles or advertisement features during the festival season.
Referring to the photograph of a film personality that accompanied an interview published in The Hindu, a Chennai-based reader, A.J. Venkatasubramanyam, points out in an e-mail message to the Readers' Editor: "The film personality is shown trying to light a fire cracker held in his hand. This is contrary to the advice of competent authorities." Asked for his comment, a senior journalist in charge of the section of the paper that carried the picture had this to say: "The reader does have a point. Unfortunately, I missed seeing in that way. It was not our intention to propagate the practice of bursting crackers in this manner. And I thank the reader for pointing it out."
(Some callers referred to a few similar pictures that were "in violation of one or the other of the safety norms." These pictures had been published in different pages on different days ahead of Deepavali.)
Another reader, Sudarsanam of Srirangam, objected to the use of a picture of Austrian film actor Christoph Waltz in the magazine section of the paper. "The picture with pipe," he asserted, "may have an impact among readers that cigarette smoking will help them to achieve their interest. When the Government is taking a lot of efforts to reduce the smoking habit among the public, this is not expected from The Hindu." The reader has a point but it is arguable. The key question is: is it all right for newspapers to exercise censorship in such matters, as if in denial of the harmful practice of pipe- or cigarette-smoking in the real world, which are commonly depicted in films, for instance?
Back to science journalism. A reader, Arul Louis, informs us that one of the pioneers of modern science journalism was an Indian, Gobind Behari Lal, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1937. He has taken the pains to send a copy of The New York Times dated April 3, 1982, which reported the death of Lal from cancer, at the age of 92. The obituary stated: "Mr. Lal, science editor emeritus for the Hearst newspapers, worked for Hearst in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles since joining The San Francisco Examiner in 1925. He shared the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished reporting with Howard W. Blakeslee of The Associated Press, William L. Laurance of The New York Times, John J. O'Neill of The New York Herald Tribune and David Dietze, of the Scripps-Howard newspapers ... His efforts in behalf of Indian independence gained him some of India's highest honors, including the Padma Bushan in 1969 and the Tamra Patra in 1973."
A week before his death, Lal had this to say in an interview: "My interest is to create among the readers a lust for the knowledge of science, which destroys superstition and all kind of false assumption and raises the power of the human brain." In his long journalistic career, the obituary mentioned, he had interviewed many distinguished scientific, literary, and political figures of the 20th century. They included Albert Einstein, M.K. Gandhi, Sherwood Anderson, and Sinclair Lewis.