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Updated: October 14, 2009 12:17 IST

Science journalism has miles to go

S. Viswanathan
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S. Viswanathan, Readers' Editor
The Hindu S. Viswanathan, Readers' Editor

The robust reader response to last week’s column (“Science journalism: role of training and experience”) encourages me to address the challenge of doing science journalism competently in greater detail. Our concern is confined to science writing or reporting for a general newspaper and I tried to deal with one aspect of it — how to communicate science-related information to readers with accuracy and clarity. Science journalism goes beyond what daily newspapers, magazines, and the broadcast media do in the traditional sense. It is increasingly going online, where the possibilities of offering rich content, including graphics, are virtually limitless. It includes relatively accessible material published in some science journals, for example Nature and Lancet. Besides, there is investigative science journalism, which is becoming popular in some countries. However, the right kind of communication is a common problem.

The responses, some of them from scientists, highlight the need to have more trained science communicators not only in the print and electronic media, but also in the area of making documentaries and short films. Nanjundiaha Shashidhara suggests that all communication and journalism training institutions should have science communication as one of the core subjects, not as an optional subject. Formal training would help enrich skills to write reports and articles for newspapers but also scripts for short films and plays.

Rajagopal Velamoor, agriculture scientist and former director of Central Plantation Crops Research Institute (CPCRI), Kasaragod, Kerala, says if science journalism has not yet evolved in India into a powerful profession, it is mainly for want of training. “Science journalism is different from writing research papers,” he observes, “and I learnt this by experience in my own way during and after my 40 years of service as a scientist.” He has to his credit over 220 research papers and books on a variety of subjects. All this, he regrets, has not brought him media attention, leave alone media recognition as a science journalist.

The SLV launch

Senior journalist G. Krishnan, who as a consultant trained young sub-editors and reporters of The Hindu until recently, notes that reporters are often reluctant to admit that they do not understand the subject; instead, they merely reproduce the contents of the press releases or briefings. He recalls a personal experience earlier in his career: “I remember as a 22- or 23-year-old, covering the SLV launch in the 1970s, when I was too arrogant to admit that I did not understand some of the things that were being said. A Daily Thanthi reporter asked me to explain the launch to him, which I did as best as I could. Then well-known scientist, Abdul Kalaam, who was the mission director, happened to come by and he explained it in simple Tamil so that we both got a clear understanding. It also helped me explain the same thing to the readers of The Hindu, leading to all-round congratulations in the office.”

But it is rare for reporters to have an Abdul Kalaam around to explain things to them in simple language. As things stand, the quality of the press releases and background material that come from science institutions has much to do with enabling or not enabling accessibility to the general reader. What is well said will be well understood; and what is well understood can be well covered journalistically. Given the often technically demanding nature of the task, interviews with scientists who have the gift of explaining their work to people outside their field are a favourite form of science journalism. But a worthwhile interview with an expert presupposes that the journalist asks the relevant questions.

Translation and problems

Journalists who work in various Indian languages seem to face special challenges in covering science. A senior BBC journalist, T. Manivannan, Head of BBC Tamil Service (of the BBC World Service), London, observes in an e-mail: “In Tamil Service here, our difficulties are doubled — we have to make science understandable to listeners in Tamil. Translation of technical words is a near impossible task; such translations make the content matter almost unintelligible to lay listeners, as the newly coined Tamil words may not have in most cases gained currency in popular usage and many words smack of punditry.” What is true of Tamil probably applies to other Indian languages.

Although India has a long history of science journalism, efforts in the direction of popularising science and creating a scientific temper among the people (the need for which was often emphasised by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru) are yet to make a breakthrough. Science education has developed but its reach in society is limited.

Science journalism in India began in the 19th century, taken up as a public service mission. Interestingly, Digdarshan, a monthly journal published in Hoogly in West Bengal, was trilingual (it used Hindi, Bengali, and English). But it was only after Independence that concerted efforts were made to popularise science. The Scientific Policy Resolution of March 4, 1958 played a significant role in spreading science education and also in developing industry and technology. Media attention was limited to publishing news of scientific discoveries and related developments, mostly in the inside pages. In the last two decades there has been a measurable expansion of the scope of s & t coverage in daily newspapers and magazines, thanks to rapid developments in science-intensive sectors of the “new economy”, notably information technology and biotechnology. Unfortunately, studies reveal that while science coverage has increased over the years, there has been no significant improvement in the quality of science writing. The message of science is yet to reach large sections of people across the country, who largely remain in the grip of superstition, as was evident from the recent incident of mass whipping of women who were allegedly possessed by “evil spirits” in a Tamil Nadu village. (“Mass whipping of women to cast away ‘evil spirit'”, The Hindu web edition.

Even in western countries, science journalism has run into trouble in recent years, a situation made worse by the economic crisis. In the United States, for instance, cost cutting by newspapers has led to a significant decline in the number of science journalists. Twenty years ago, nearly 150 American newspapers had a science section; now fewer than 20 have it. In response to this challenge, 35 of the country’s top universities recently came together to launch a non-profit wire service, named Futurity, to provide articles on academic developments, particularly in the s & t field, to popular web sites such as Yahoo News and Google News. The universities see this, at best, as a temporary solution.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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