Being a science journalist with dignity

Classes at NYU have started! On day one, Michael Balter, who is a senior correspondent for Science, kicked off the program with an introduction to interviewing by, simply enough, interviewing each one of us, having us introduce ourselves at the same time. I’m not sure about how much others were able to take away from it, but I couldn’t much until Michael told us that he was getting each one of us to say something interesting. And it was only in hindsight that his demonstration started to make sense to me.

After introductions, we got into discussing Michael’s classes, how they’d be structured, what we’d be expected to do and what goals we’d better have in mind. While they wore on, what struck me hardest was my great inexperience as a science writer. Despite having spent two years at The Hindu reporting on science as well as grappling with tools to take the subject to a bigger audience, all that I’d thought were problems that only accrued with time found mention in our classroom discussion on day one.

Maybe we’d take on these problems “in detail” in the coming months, but their quick acknowledgment was proof enough for me that I was in the right place and among the right people.

Participating in the discussion – led by Michael’s comments – finally gave me the sense of dignity in being a science journalist that I believe is not easy to acquire in India except, of course, together with being considered exotic. It was reassuring to be able to discuss my problems in detail, especially being able to pick on small, nagging issues. For example, stuff like “What do you do when a scientist you’ve spoken to asks to see the story before it is published?”

It seems the answer’s not always a simple “No”.

The class on Day 2, by Dan Fagin, was more introspective. Seemingly, it was the class that explored – and I suppose will continue to explore – the basics of journalism in detail; what a news story is, where story ideas come from, etc. – the class that will keep us thinking about what it is that we’re really doing and why we’re doing it. And just to make things more interesting – and obviously more educative – each one of us in the class was assigned a beat to cover for the semester, so chosen that they lay completely outside our respective comfort zones.

Taking my cue from Masterchef USA, where so many attempts to cook the personally uncookable had paid off and trying to play it safe with “just chicken” had backfired, I got myself assigned genetics, secure in the knowledge that:

  1. If I do screw up, I will screw up gloriously.
  2. If I end up being able to write about experimental physics and genetics with equal ease, I will also likely feel up for anything.

Toward the end, and just like on orientation day, Dan had another nugget of golden advice. He said that while writing his stories, he had in mind not his entire potential audience but one reader in particular – a fantasy reader: a man named Stan whom Dan knew, who wanted to know everything about the world but actually didn’t know anything. “Pick someone like that, and my advice is don’t pick your mother because she will like everything you write.”

At this point, although I would like to keep writing, I’m going to have to get started on my assignments. So I’m going to leave you with this quote from an amazing blog post by Paige Brown Jarreau I read on SciLogs the other day, to give you a sense of why I’m writing “NYUlab” in the first place.

So if you are a student, especially a student of mass communication or a student studying at the intersection of two different fields, I highly encourage you to blog. Use your blog to make connections between concepts in vastly different fields of study, or that seemingly occupy different parts of your brain. Tie your art classes to science communication. Tie your biology classes to your information theory classes. Tie your knowledge of human cognition to environmental and scientific issues. Don’t let anything you learn or read about go un-applied.

Over time, I’m hoping my experiences at NYU will pay off in much the same way, by becoming closely tied to different aspects of my life. Have a nice day!