The following is an abridged version of the dissertation by Saradha Mohan Kumar of the 2010-11 batch on science journalism in India. It was adjudged the best by Mohan Varughese, a Lecturer at Mar Thoma College, Thiruvalla.
Saradha Mohan

Science finds little space in Indian newspaper columns

In an era of scams, revelations and elections, little will the reporters and editors be interested in science coverage and so will the attitude of readers be towards such stories in newspapers. But instances of a few English dailies in India will show that it is not the era but the nature of the subject that complicates reporting and publishing. In 1818, a monthly publication Digdarshan started carrying science stories in Hindi, Bengali and English, marking the beginning of science journalism in India.

Now, there are few papers that carry science stories regularly and only two national dailies - The Hindu and The Telegraph - that have pages dedicated to science and technology. In fact, most newspapers have stopped their supplements or weekly pages on science topics and most news organisations have reassigned their science reporters. A study by The Hoot, a media monitor, indicates that science coverage in the print media is about 6.8 per cent. Science and technology affect the day-to-day life in several aspects. Be it an environmental issue, a disease or the release of a new gadget, science has a direct impact on the lives of people. Knowledge in science is essential, when it comes to decision-making in issues involving information inputs such as health. Also, it is crucial for leaders to have at least a basic knowledge of science when resolving scientific issues as the decisions could affect people at the local, national and international levels.

In this context, newspapers can play a more effective role than science textbooks in educating people, as they are not only cost-effective but also easy to understand. If science reporters write articles that would be understood even by a 14-year-old, scientific knowledge can be transmitted to everyone. In spite of the importance of science journalism being acknowledged by journalists as well as scientists, it is yet to come out of its present stage of infancy. Several reasons stand as a barrier for newspapers to provide high-quality science coverage. It ranges from reluctance of editors in publishing more science stories due to readership concerns, to the communication gap between scientists and reporters. Science reporting in India can be compared to a simple food chain, say, of a tiger.

The tiger, which is the final consumer, doesn’t get the same amount of energy that the deer gets from the plant, due to the energy loss in every step. Similarly, there is an information loss in every step of making a science report. It starts with the scientists, as some journalists blame them for not providing enough information. “Research institutes in India do not have a systematic method to publish their work,” said Gopal Raj, science correspondent of The Hindu. “And, it is not easy to talk to scientists.” But, the amount of research done in foreign countries is significant and most scientists publish their work as there are several reputed international journals. So, Indian newspapers publish many stories about the discoveries and inventions at foreign research institutes. The number of stories in some branches of science, carried in The New Indian Express (TNIE) and The Hindu during March, was estimated. While TNIE had 38 stories based on foreign sources and 31 on Indian sources, The Hindu had 22 and 55 respectively. Scientists “treat the media as a necessary evil that creeps into their workspace,” according to Pallava Bagla, a former Science Correspondent of The Indian Express. But, it is unfair to suggest that all the blame lies on the other side of the table. After all, in communication, the medium plays the most important role and the problems and the solutions lie in the hands of the media itself. Most reporters don’t follow the scientific jargon.

This either leads to misinformation or misconception. “If inexperienced reporters meet scientists, they won’t be able to understand what the scientists are talking about and the information published will be factually incorrect,” said The Hindu science correspondent R Prasad. And, if scientists are quoted wrongly, their reputation can be affected. So, they are reluctant to talk to reporters, Mr Prasad added. Politics, crime and sex shape today’s newspapers. So, most journalists want to advance to political or crime reporting and science is left in the hands of relatively young and inexperienced reporters. This leads to a number of problems, the most important being that of reporters repeating technical jargon due to their lack of understanding. Young reporters fail to interact with scientists and do not cover spot-events. Reporters also plagiarise as they depend on foreign sources.Finally, the role of editors come into play. Editors consider science a “soft” topic that doesn’t boost sales. So very often science stories get killed, however good they may be. Illustrations play a major role. Due to lack of backup photos and graphics, science stories get buried in one of the inside pages. Hence, science coverage is affected in every step and ultimately readers are provided with limited number of stories.

In order to carry the benefits of science to the public, scientists at the 23rd Kerala Science Congress, suggested ideas such as good communication between reporters and scientists, depicting stories in an attractive way, avoiding technical writing, localisation of science news and revival of traditional methods used in rural areas through writing. According to science journalists, there is a healthy competition among Indian newspapers, which increases the chances of an improvement in science coverage. Science journalism goes well beyond the mere communication of data. The logical and rational interpretation should come to the fore and enable the readers to shape their lives, ideas and thinking. And, the importance of science can be established by Albert Einstein's quote: “Yes, we have to divide up our time like that, between our politics and our equations. But to me, our equations are far more important, for politics are only a matter of present concern. A mathematical equation stands forever."