The thrill of writing the story and the pride of having carried out the research still belong to the individual journalist and scientist respectively, but the activity, as a whole is more important than that.
This piece was born out of comments to the article ‘Scientists and journalists square off over covering science and “getting it right”’, by Dana Smith. The comments were by scientists Sutirth Dey and Amitabh Joshi and journalists R Prasad, Priyanka Pulla and myself from The Hindu. The discussions centered around how to build accuracy into reports on research work and how to deal with inaccuracies; should journalists show a draft to the scientists concerned as a quick way to check facts; do media outlets display comments and clarifications in case of errors that may creep in etc.
I wish to look at the above from two vantage points: There is the close up view telling us that it is the work of a particular scientist or group and that the onus is on the journalist to communicate the work accurately and in an easy to read format. There is also the other long term vision which looks at the whole vista of scientific enterprise, communication and its being absorbed by society as if it’s embedded in a social matrix and matters deeply to the working and establishment of rationality and order among people.
I believe that the former view is something of a microview – leaving just the work, its creator – the scientist and the journalist as a passive conduit that takes this to the people who are at a receiving end. In this picture, certainly the scientist has invested a lot more than the journalist in the work and so has more at stake in getting the story out accurately, so it does not matter if the journalist shows the draft to them to get their ‘go ahead’ before publishing. But while I believe that if the journalist is confused about some part of the work or the appropriateness of an analogy, it is ok to get the idea or part of the writeup approved by the scientist, it is bad practice if it becomes a rule or an expectation on the part of the scientists.
There is also the other point of view – the panoramic one where scientific enterprise is a lattice embedded in the matrix of the society and is as crucial as a scaffolding holding it in place. In this point of view, given that science in our country is practiced only in labs within institutes and universities, there is a wave of communication passing between the scientists, journalists and the society. This wave informs, reinforces and replenishes the population using the knowledge base created by the scientists. Individual stories and scientific works are single events in this cluster. The thrill of writing the story and the pride of having carried out the research still belong to the individual journalist and scientist respectively, but the activity, as a whole is more important than that. I believe this picture and feel it is more important for scientists and journalists to work as if they complement and complete each other in a larger social context. There is the need to give up the ‘I’ in working out a better way to address some of the problems in science communication that exist today.
Towards this, I have a few requests to make of the scientists.
- Scientists could maintain a dossier of stories from various media – both good stories and badly reported ones. They could form a committee and ensure analysis and action on these reports. If MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker could do this, so can Indian scientists.
- Organize short workshops for media people including science writers/reporters, heads of editorial departments, desk editors etc, by invitation and consultation with editors of the media houses. Let it be an exchange of ideas and a two-way learning.
- Also have talks by journalists for the scientists on the challenges they face in terms of even time and fact checking. Resolve methods to address these in consultation with journalists.
- Highlight once a month a story that stands out for some aspect – either accuracy or innovative storytelling or for having discovered the story.
- Hold workshops in places other than Bangalore or Delhi. In fact also hold workshops in regional languages. These could be held once in a year and if enough people volunteer this could be possible.
- Scientists should understand the background of the journalist they are talking to. Perhaps look at a sample of their stories. This may not be possible on the brink of bringing out the article but sometime when there is a bit of leisure. For instance is the person a regular science reporter or is usually assigned to some other beat etc. This can help them pitch their description of their own work accordingly.
As far as what scientists can expect from reporters, the following points come to my mind:
- That they acknowledge honestly when they do not understand a concept.
- They can compile lists of science reporters that they can share with the scientific institutions.
- Acknowledge mistakes and issue corrections if there is a mistake.
I would like to acknowledge a useful discussion with K Deepa Lakshmi, Internet section, The Hindu Newsdesk.
Shubashree Desikan is a science journalist with The Hindu and writes primarily on mathematical sciences.