Amplifying the written word

Some months ago, I received an email from a reader about an article I had written on current research on Friedreich’s ataxia, a disease that causes damage to the nervous system as well as speech impairment and movement problems. Friedrich’s ataxia starts during childhood and manifests later as impaired muscular coordination that worsens with age. It is caused by an inherited aberrant gene.

We all carry two copies of every gene, each inherited from a parent. Friedrich’s ataxia occurs when both copies of the FXN gene have the defect. The defective FXN gene causes a problem in producing a protein called frataxin, which is found in cells throughout the body, with the highest levels in the heart, spinal cord, liver, pancreas, and muscles used for voluntary movement.

The article described how the researchers had identified a way to tag the defective part of the gene and bind it so that frataxin can be produced normally. This was done in cell lines in the lab, and treatment of people with the problem was still some distance away.

I got a few emails after this article was published asking me for the contact details of the researchers. These emails mentioned that relatives were suffering from Friedrich’s ataxia and that perhaps the research would hold the key. This was not surprising or new — research kindles hope for patients and their relatives who often reach out asking for more details.

But what did surprise me was the recent email I got, where the writer was emailing to know more — it came three years after the article was published.

This touched me on several counts. First, it brought home the thirst for scientific knowledge and the eagerness to probe and understand complex phenomena, among the readers. It was moving to think of the reader scouring the web for information that could help a loved one. Successful research, promising results and reactions of hope are what make it worth the while for science journalists who spend their time trying to make sense of the abstruse and simplifying it for the lay reader.

Second, the email underscored the reach of the medium of the Internet and the power of the published word. This reinforces in us journalists the need for rigour and commitment to facts in the reports we write. The role of the Internet in prolonging the life of stories is well known, but the ease with which a person can access an old story and also mail the writer for an update never fails to astonish.

In earlier days, when print was the dominant mode of communication, the combination of the short life span of stories and the time it took to establish communication with the writer worked to prevent such easy links between the reader, writer and the written. Back then, letters were the dominant mode of communication, and people travelled across the globe to confer, whereas now, instant messaging and Zoom conferences have made discussions easy to organise.

The Internet has taken us from daily, weekly and monthly schedules to round-the-clock planning. It has also played a role in amplifying and making immortal the written word. For reporters, it is an added responsibility to use the power of this medium in a manner consistent with journalistic values.

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 4:21:15 AM |

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