Love science and technology? Craving to enter a career that is a thrilling mix of both these fields with logic, reasoning and discovery added for good measure? Well, look no further than our feature on science journalism. We’ve interviewed the best of the best – T V Jayan, science editor at The Telegraph (New Delhi), award-winning journalist Dinesh C Sharma and Vibha Varshney, Associate Editor, Down To Earth to give you in-depth knowledge about this fascinating career where you get to be the watchdog of a whole new world that’s constantly evolving and upgrading itself. So go on, get all your answers...
What does science journalism entail?
TV Jayan: Science journalism involves reporting on developments in science and technology. A good science journalist should be able to give perspective to a new scientific or technological development. Simply put, a science journalist needs to simplify complex research into a language for the lay man.
Vibha: He or she must be willing to devote long hours to understand the subject. A simple phone call for quotes requires hours of preparation to catch the nuances of the research. To ensure that this understanding translates into an article, the science journalist needs to have a strong hold on the subject he is writing about.
What are the basic skills required to be a good science journalist?
TV Jayan: A good science reporter first and foremost is a good reporter. Our mentor Dr K S Jayaraman, former science editor of The Press Trust of India (PTI), says the formula for a good science reporter is 80 per cent good journalism and 20 per cent aptitude to learn and communicate science.
Dinesh: In order to be a science journalist, first you need to be a good journalist. A good grounding in journalism per se helps in becoming a good science journalist.
Sometimes there is an emerging conflict between scientists and journalists. How do you resolve those?
TV Jayan: Scientists generally feel that journalists are not in a position to fathom or understand their research, which is a result of their perseverance of years, if not decades. They fear that journalists, who flitter from one subject to another, would misreport or misquote them or oversimplify their findings or exaggerate their claims. There is no easy way out of this. Similarly, science in India is mainly state-sponsored and –controlled, and hence can possibly be a tool in the government’s hands to further its agenda, which journalists need to watch out for.
Vibha: Researchers are wary of the reporter misunderstanding the story and making them look stupid. The reporter can avoid this by reading up and building a basic understanding of the subject. The scientist needs to understand that the journalist depends on him to explain new research in simple terms and provide interesting examples.
What are the greatest challenges as a science journalist?
TV Jayan: The practice of science journalism is both exciting and challenging. For instance, a science reporter working for a newspaper may have to write about the discovery of water on Mars one day, a new genetic manipulation technique the second day or file a story on the latest archaeological find the third day.
Overall, a reporter gets to cover a range of subjects and the opportunity to meet a large number of people working in diverse fields of science and technology.
Dinesh: The job of a science journalist in India is pretty challenging because Indian scientists in general are not good communicators and often choose not to talk with journalists because of mistrust issues. Scientists in government laboratories are bound by rules and are barred from talking to journalists by institute directors. Our scientific institutions, unlike public funded science in the West, do not believe in public engagement and communication of science. This is unfortunate and poses a major challenge for science journalists. The situation is changing but very slowly.
Path-breaking stories that these journalists covered
TV Jayan: As far as I know, I was the first science journalist to do a story on deleterious effects of energy drinks not just in India, even in the world when I did a story on it in 2008.
Dinesh Sharma: In 2008, I went to the Arctic to report on an ongoing international experiment in climate change. I reported from the Canadian high Arctic for ten days, from the legendary icebreaker Amundsen. I have written a book which is due for publication from Vigyan Prasar in 2015. It’s called “Witness to the Meltdown.”
Vibha: Being a science journalist provides an opportunity to watch history being made. That is what happened when I reported on India’s Mars Orbiter Mission; I was amongst the few journalists who witnessed the launch live from the roof of the SHAR, Sriharikota.
Best schools for science journalism Here’s the lowdown...
TV Jayan: One can pursue a MSc. in science communication from Anna University in Chennai and Devi Ahalya Viswavidyalaya in Indore . Overseas, courses are offered by Imperial College London and the University of Bath in the UK; universities in the US include New York University, University of California Santa Cruz, Johns Hopkins University and Boston University.
Dinesh Sharma: The National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore offers a short course in science journalism and the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore offers fellowships in science writing. The National Council of Science Museums, Kolkata also has a post-graduation course in science communication.
Call of the mentor & favourite science writers:
TV Jayan: “I learnt the ropes of science journalism from Dr Jayaraman, former science editor of PTI, the organisation where I cut my teeth. Among my favourites science writers are late Walter Sullivan, Carl Zimmer, Natalie Angier, James Randerson and Phillip Campbell. Closer home, I enjoy reading articles by Dr Jayaraman and G S Mudur, who also happens to be my colleague at The Telegraph.
Dinesh: My mentor was Dr K S Jayaraman, who was editor of PTI Science Service when I joined the news agency in 1984.
Ahoy! Advice for budding science writers
Willingness to read a lot
Be inquisitive, sceptical, stick to facts and refrain from generalising
Talk to different experts to get all sides of a particular story
Relate to work of scientists with societal good