Talking scicomm at NCBS – II

I was invited to speak to the students of the annual science writing workshop conducted at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, for the second year (first year talk’s notes here).

Some interesting things we discussed:

1. Business of journalism: There were more questions from this year’s batch of aspiring science writers about the economics of online journalism, how news websites grow, how much writers can expect to get paid, etc. This is heartening: more journalists at all levels should be aware of, and if possible involved in, how their newsrooms make their money. Because if you retreat from this space, you cede space for a capitalist who doesn’t acknowledge the principles and purpose of journalism to take over. If money has to make its way into the hands of journalists – as it should, for all the work that they’re doing – only journalists can also ensure that it’s clean.

2. Conflicts of interest: The Wire has more to lose through conflicts of interests in a story simply because there are more people out there looking to bring it down. So the cost of slipping up is high. But let’s not disagree that being diligent on this front always makes for a better report.

3. Formulae: There is no formula for a good science story. A story itself is good when it is composed by good writing and when it is a good story in the same way we think of good stories in fiction. They need to entertain without betraying the spirit of their subject, and – unlike in fiction – they need to seek out the truth. That they also need to be in the public interest is something I’m not sure about, although only to the extent that it doesn’t compromise the rights of any other actor. This definition is indeed vague but only because the ‘public interest’ is a shape-shifting entity. For example, two scholars having an undignified fight over some issue in the public domain wouldn’t be in the public interest – and I would deem it unfit for publication for just that reason. At the same time, astronomers discovering a weird star billions of lightyears away may not be in the public interest either – but that wouldn’t be enough reason to disqualify the story. In fact, a deeper point: when the inculcation of scientific temper, adherence to the scientific method and financial support for the performance of science are all deemed to not be in the public interest, then covering these aspects of science by the same yardstick will only give rise to meaningless stories.

4. Representation of authority: If two scientists in the same institute are the only two people working on a new idea, and if one of them has published a paper, can you rely on the other’s opinions of it? I wouldn’t – they’re both paid by the same institution, and it is in both their interests to uphold the stature of the institution and all the work that it supports because, as a result, their individual statures are upheld. Thankfully, this situation hasn’t come to be – but something similar has. Most science journalists in the country frequently quote scientists from Bangalorean universities on topics like molecular biology and ecology because they’re the most talkative. However, the price they’re quietly paying for this is by establishing that the only scientists in the country worth talking about apropos these topics are based out of Bangalore. That is an injustice.

5. Content is still king: You can deck up a page with the best visuals, but if the content is crap, then nothing will save the package from flopping. You can also package great content in a lousy-looking page and it will still do well. This came up in the context of a discussion on emulating the likes of Nautilus and Quanta in India. The stories on their pages read so well because they are good stories, not because they’re accompanied by cool illustrations. This said, it’s also important to remember that illustrations cost quite a bit of money, so when the success of a package is mostly the in the hands of the content itself, paying attention to that alone during a cash-crunch may not be a bad idea.