Why covering ISRO is a pain

The following is a bulleted list of reasons why covering developments on the Indian spaceflight programme can be nerve-wracking.

  • ISRO does not have a media engagement policy that lays out when it will communicate information to journalists and how, so there is seldom a guarantee of correctness when reporting developing events
  • ISRO’s updates themselves are haphazard: sometimes they’re tweeted, sometimes they’re issued as singles lines on their websites, sometimes there’s a ‘media release’, sometimes there’s a PIB release, and so on
  • As opposed to the organisation itself, ISRO members can be gabby – but you can never tell exactly who is going to be gabby or when
  • Some ISRO scientists insert important information in the middle of innocuous speeches delivered at minor events in schools and colleges
  • Every once in a while, one particular publication will become ‘blessed’ with sources within the org. and churn out page after page of updates+
  • Like the male superstars of Tamil cinema, ISRO benefits from the pernicious jingoism it is almost always surrounded with but does nothing to dispel it (ref. the mental cost of walking some beats over others)
  • There is a policy that says employees of Indian institutions don’t have to seek the okay of their superiors to speak to the press unless when speaking ill; ISRO’s own and more stringent policy supersedes it
  • There are four ways to acquire any substantive information (beyond getting close to officials and following the ‘blessed’ publications): bots that crawl the isro.gov.in domain looking for PDFs, Q&A records of the Lok/Rajya Sabha, Indian language newspapers that cover local events, and former employees
  • If a comprehensive history of ISRO exists, it is bound to be in someone’s PhD thesis, locked up in the annals of a foreign publication or found scattered across the Indian media landscape, so covering ISRO has to be a full-time job that leaves room or time for little else
  • Information, and even commentary, will flow freely when everything is going well; when shit hits the fan, there is near-complete silence
  • In similar vein, journalists publishing any criticism of ISRO almost never hear from any officials within the org.
  • (A relatively minor point in this company) I don’t think anyone knows what the copyright restrictions on ISRO-produced images and videos are, so much so that NASA’s images of ISRO’s assets are easier to use

+ I say this without disparaging the journalist, who must have worked hard to cultivate such a network. The problem is that ISRO has constantly privileged such networks over more systematic engagement, forcing journalists to resort to access journalism.