The climate change of bad news

This post flows a bit like the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. As one friend put it, “It starts somewhere and then goes in a different direction.”

This year hasn’t been beset by the same old steady drizzle of bad news we have every year – but has borne the brunt of cyclonic storms, each one distinctively episodic and devastating. The latest of these storms is l’affair Rukmini Callimachi. To the uninitiated: Callimachi is a reporter with the NYT who shot to fame from 2015 or so onwards for her inside reports of the Islamic Caliphate; she later dramatised her efforts to produce these stories in a podcast called Caliphate. And in this time, she raked up four Pulitzer Prize nominations (although I don’t set much store by prizes in general).

I haven’t read or listened to her work, so when a friend shared a link to the NYT’s own report, by its media columnist Ben Smith, discussing the charges against Callimachi and their newfound, but evidently delayed, efforts to reevaluate her work, I wasn’t guilty of not having criticised her myself. (If you think this is a tall order: the headline of Jacob Silverman’s review of this storm for The New Republic describes, in a few words, how quickly her house of cards seems to fall down.)

However, these days, a successful journalist is two things: she is the producer of stories that have changed the world, and which continue to live lives of their own, and she is a role-model of sorts. Her output and her resolve represent what is possible if only one tried. An even greater example of such work is that of the journalists at the Miami Herald – especially Julie Brown – who exposed Jeffrey Epstein and brought on, among other changes, a reckoning at various universities around the US that had knowingly accepted his money and overtures.

But now, with Callimachi’s articles seemingly teetering on the brink of legitimacy, both the things she stood for are on the edge as well. First, the good thing: her stories, which – if Smith’s account is to be believed – Callimachi seems to have composed in her head before moving in to report them, often, if not always, with the spiritual and material support of many of NYT’s senior editors. Second, the bad: her legacy, such as it is – erected as a façade at which we could all marvel, at least those of us who unquestioningly placed our faith and hope in the greatness of another. This is the guilt I feel, a fractured reflection of what Callimachi’s coverage of the Islamic Caliphate at the NYT is itself going through right now.

However, I will also be quick to shed this guilt because I insist that as much as I’m tasked – by my employer, but the zeitgeist, so to speak – to be wary, cautious, skeptical, to fact-check, fact-check, fact-check, to maintain cupfuls of salt at hand so I’m never taken for a ride, just as much as I’m behooved to stand on guard, I’m also fortifying an increasingly small, and increasingly precious, garden in a corner of my mind, a place away from the bad news that I can visit in my daydreams, where I can recoup some hope and optimism. Today, the winds of l’affair Callimachi blew away her articles and podcasts from this place.

Make no mistake, I will still call out everything that deserves to be called out: from the multiple red-flags Silverman spotlighted to the anti-oriental undertones of Callimachi’s methods, of her claims and even of the self-recrimination bubbling up around her, to a lot of which Rafia Zakaria has (repeatedly) called attention. I’m only saddened, for now, by the unstoppable eradication of all that is good, such as it is, and by the guilt for my part in it. As a political being, in this moment I deem this march upon ignorance to be necessary, but as a human one, it is deeply, and to my mind unforeseeably, exacting. A cognitive dissonance for the times, I suppose, although I’m sure I will cope soon enough.

Fortunately, perhaps in a counterintuitive sense, the Callimachi episode is personally not very hard to recover from. While it is true that what Callimachi and her collaborators have (still largely allegedly) done is quite different from, say, what Jonah Lehrer did, they were both motivated by a common sin: to print what could be instead of what is (and even these words might be too strong). More specifically, reporting on war brings with it its own seductions, many of them quite powerful, to the extent that some – as Zakaria implied in her piece for The Baffler – may choose to believe Callimachi et al’s failings are still the failings of an institution vis-à-vis conflict journalism. But no, the problem is pervasive.

However, looking on this shitshow from not-so-distant India, two bells have been quick to go off. First, this is very old wine in a new bottle, in which, to borrow Zakaria’s words, “the greed for catching terrorists” is pressed into the service of making “white journalists’ careers”; you could replace ‘terrorists’ with anything else that has been touched, at any point in its history, by a colonist or invader. Also read Priyanka Borpujari’s 2019 essay in the Columbia Journalism Review, in which she writes:

The title ‘foreign correspondent’ has long been synonymous with whiteness, maleness, and imperialism—journalists fly in from North America, Europe, and Australia to cover the poverty and wars of the non-Western world. In recent years, a push for diversity has meant that more women are pursuing stories in what was once the domain of men—conflict zones and fractured democracies—or in traditionally private female spaces. But the opportunities for journalists in non-Western nations to tell their own stories in international outlets have not been as great. Overwhelmingly, foreign reportage still relies on a model of Western, and largely white, reporters hiring local journalists in subservient roles.”

And thanks to biases in the way technology is constructed, used as well as located around the world, the problem extends to the consumption of journalism as well. To quote from an older post:

Where an app [that amplifies content] was made matters because nobody is going to build an app in location A and hope that it becomes popular in faraway location B. Pocket itself is San Franciscan and the bias shows: most recommendations I’ve received, or even the non-personalised trending topics I’ve spotted, are American. In fact, among all the tools I use and curation services I follow, I’ve come across only two exceptions: the heartwarming human-curated 3QuarksDaily and Quora. I’m not familiar with Quora’s story but I’m sure it’s interesting – about how a Q&A platform out of Mountain View came to be dominated by Indian users.

I notice a not insignificant number of articles and essays, in English, to this day emerging from blogs and publications in Central, South and Southeast Asia, South America and of course Africa that will never go viral on Twitter, make it to the list of ‘most read’ articles on Pocket or be cited by even the most quirky columnist – even as the same ideas and arguments will virtually ‘break the internet’ the moment they emerge from The Atlantic or New Yorker a few months later.

None of the writers of The Atlantic or New Yorker can be blamed, at least not most of the time, for something quite hard to discover in the first place, but that doesn’t mean Big Tech isn’t distorting our view of who is doing good work and who isn’t. And many Indian journalists and writers are often at the wrong end of this discovery problem.

In this light, what Callimachi and the NYT did is not new at all but in fact further widens, or accentuates, the divide between being non-white, non-Western and being white and Western. This is a divide that I and many others, perhaps especially the others, have been habituated to ignore – especially when the crime at hand appears to be victimless but in fact quietly sidelines those who have already been historically, and today structurally, displaced from the ‘mainstream’.

On the other hand, what the NYT has perpetrated here is akin to what many in India (myself included) have done and, to different degrees, continue to have a part in. Specifically, the second bell that goes off has to do with my privileges, one product of which is that I will always be a parachute-journalist in my own country – a member of the top 1% who claims to understand the problems of the 99%.

Journalism professor Justin Martin gently defended parachute journalism in a 2011 essay, deeming fluency in “one of the main local languages” to be a prerequisite of parachuting well. I am not likely to speak any other languages than the four I already know, and less literally, I can never know, in any meaningful sense, what it means to be poor, transgender, tribal, of a lower caste; that lived experience will stay out of reach, and my assessment of what is right will always be inferior to those of, say, a desperate job-seeker, a transgender activist, a member of a tribe, a Dalit scholar when, for example, the topic at hand is poverty, gender, Indigenous people’s rights and caste.

As Martin also admits, “Hiring correspondents who live in the countries and regions they cover … is ideal”, and my higher social status in India does place me in a country other than the one I’m writing about. Although I may not be guilty of allowing information sources I haven’t vetted enough to feed exaggerated stories that I can’t prove in any other way to be true – that is, although we may not all be Rukmini Callimachis ourselves – the composition of our newsrooms means we are only one illegitimate source away, only one moment of weakness for what could be in place of what is away, from creating the next storm.

Good journalism is still around

This morning, a trusted scientist called my attention to a tweet thread by Jordan Fischer listing the many good stories journalists in the US had done that had improved the lives of people. The scientist then tagged me, presumably to respond to his request for someone to compose a similar thread of stories that journalists in India had produced to similar effect – but which he also suggested could push back against the low credibility Indian journalists had among the people who had abhorrent names (you know which ones) for our ilk.

The two of us had a short exchange during which I wrote an extended reply on my Notes app and shared a screenshot of it, to save me the trouble of threading it out. I’m pasting this reply below.


I’m glad Jordan did that thread but … I’m yet to see a reasoned rebuttal to the activities of journalists that makes moral as well as logical sense, and that’s why I’m reluctant to have to explain myself in response to such requests (to publish a thread of things journalism has done right, etc.).

For example, I’ve had an uncle watch the news on TV every night for a month and not once ask why channel X was freely showing a man being murdered or beaten unconscious or why channel Y was making ludicrous (to me) claims about a vaccine’s safety based on studies of mice – but he would take umbrage at every single report by The Wire, if only to ask, “Is this really true? Are you guys sure you’re not making this up?” This is not reasoned opposition to how different journalists are doing their jobs, leave alone journalism as an enterprise.

Beyond the level of taking exception to individual pieces, I’m yet to meet a person who, for example, has questions about why it’s not good for journalists to submit to external regulation or how different business models affect editorial decisions. It’s always been about how “irresponsible” we are to criticise the government at every turn, with a clear and widening divide between groups of people who are often pro-Hindutva and people who are not that the law of large numbers simply doesn’t explain. This is clearly, if only to me, not about journalism. It’s a contest of views, missing the point though it does, about the role and responsibility of every enterprise that claims to serve the people in a nationalist country.

And those who think journalists ought not to speak truth to power, but help expand the scope of such power – that’s when we become “press******s”. (I’m as averse as any journalist to use this term; I invoke it here to be clear about the sort of thinking I associate with it.) We don’t seem to become “press******s” when we pillory the Gandhi family for their dynastic politics, but we seem to do when we investigate corruption in the BJP. We don’t seem to become “press******s” when we pull up the West Bengal government for its incompetent response to the COVID-19 crisis, but we seem to do when we turn our attention to the ‘Gujarat model’ and its effects on public healthcare.

This doesn’t seem like it’s about what journalists are or aren’t doing but about what journalism stands in the way of. It’s about people undermining journalism for personal gains. And power is personal. It’s a personal choice to call journalists foul names because it’s a personal choice to decide which lines are okay to cross en route to whatever goals the utterer has in mind.

Nitin Gadkari, tomato chutney and blood

There is a famous comedy scene in Tamil cinema, starring the actors Vadivelu and ‘Bonda’ Mani. Those who understand Tamil should skip this awkward retelling – intended for non-Tamil speakers, to the video below and the post after. Vadivelu has blood all over his face due to an injury when ‘Bonda’ Mani walks up to him and asks why he’s got tomato chutney all over his face. Vadivelu looks stunned, and punches ‘Bonda’ Mani on the nose. Mani reaches a finger to his nose to find blood and cries out that he’s bleeding. Then Vadivelu asks, “If I have red stuff on my face it’s tomato chutney, but on your face it’s blood, eh?”

It would seem Vadivelu spoke what he did for many millions of us today wondering how exactly the Indian government designed its unique response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. One of the centrepieces of its response has been to punish journalists, by shutting them down or in many cases slapping them with nothing less than sedition charges, when journalists are critical of the government or seem to be asking uncomfortable questions. On the other hand, pseudoscientific claims that can directly cause harm, what with us being in the middle of a health emergency, are let off without so much as a slap on the wrist when they’re pronounced by journalists in pro-right-wing newsrooms or – as it often happens – by ministers in the government itself.

Nitin Gadkari, the Union minister of road transport and highways, has told NDTV that he believes the novel coronavirus was not natural and that it was made in a lab. Another BJP member, this one a state-level office-bearer, had some time back said something similarly idiotic, prompting a rare rebuke from Union minister Prakash Javadekar. But I doubt Javadekar is going to mete the same treatment out to Gadkari – his equal, so to speak – in public, and it’s what’s in the public domain that matters. So if there’s red stuff all over a journalist’s face, it’s tomato chutney, even if it’s actually blood. But on a minister’s face, it’s always blood even when it’s actually tomato chutney. And the government and its foot-soldiers have conditioned themselves as well as >30% of the country to follow this rule.

Second, NDTV is also complicit in the ignorance, irresponsibility and recklessness on display here because its report simply says Gadkari said what he did, without so much as a note mentioning that he’s wrong. The reason is that what Gadkari, Javadekar – who recently vowed to “expose” those who ranked India poorly in press-freedom indices – and their colleagues, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, have done is hack journalism, at least journalism as it used to be practiced, with editors and reporters stubborn about not taking sides.

This culture of journalism was valid when, simply put, all political factions advanced equally legitimate arguments. And according to Modi et al, his government and colleagues are also advancing arguments that are as legitimate as – often if not more legitimate than – those in the opposition. But there’s often plain and simple evidence that these claims are wrong, often rooted in scientific knowledge (which is why Modi et al have been undermining “Western science” from the moment they assumed power in 2014). Journalists can’t treat both sides as equals anymore – whether they be the Left and the Right, the conservatives and the liberals or the progressives and the dogmatists – because one side, whether by choice or fate, has incorporated pseudoscience into its political ideals.

Now, sans a note that Gadkari is really spouting rubbish and that we have enough evidence to reject the idea that it was human-made and accept that it evolved naturally[1], NDTV is not – as it may believe – staying neutral as much as being exploited by Gadkari as a way to have his words amplified. NDTV is effectively complicit, bringing Gadkari’s unqualified nonsense to millions of its readers, many of them swayed as much by the authority and political beliefs of the claimant as others are by the weight or paucity of evidence.

Indeed, the news channel may itself be consciously playing to both sides: (i) those who know exactly why the minister and others who make such claims are wrong, joined increasingly by unthinkers who need to and do say fashionable things without understanding why what they’re saying is right (often the same people that place science in wrongful opposition to religion, social science and/or tradition); and (ii) the allegedly disenfranchised folks paranoid about everything that isn’t Indian and/or homegrown, and have since become unable to tell cow urine from a medicinal solution.

[1] I read some time ago that Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say to god if he died and came face to face with an almighty creator. Russell, a famous skeptic of various religious beliefs, apparently said he would accuse god of not providing enough evidence of the latter’s existence. I don’t know if this story is true but Russell’s argument, as claimed, makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? In the context of Gadkari’s comment, and Luc Montagnier’s before him, complete evidence differs significantly from sufficient evidence., and it’s important to account for sufficiency in arguments concerning the novel coronavirus as well. For example, the people who believe the novel coronavirus originated in a lab are called conspiracy theorists not because they have an alternative view – as they often claim in defence – but because most of their arguments use the fallacy of the converse: that if there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove the virus evolved in nature, it must have originated in a lab. Similarly, I and many others are comfortable claiming the virus evolved naturally because there is sufficient evidence to indicate that it did. For the same reason, I also think I and many others can be proven wrong only if new information emerges.

Featured image: Union minister Nitin Gadkari, 2014. Credit: Press Information Bureau.

Poor journalism is making it harder for preprints

There have been quite a few statements by various scientists on Twitter who, in pointing to some preprint paper’s untenable claims, point to the manuscript’s identity as a preprint paper as well. This is not fair, as I’ve argued many times before. A big part of the problem here is bad journalism. Bad preprint papers are a problem not because their substance is bad but because people who are not qualified to understand why it is bad read it and internalise its conclusions at face value.

There are dozens of new preprint papers uploaded onto arXiv, medRxiv and bioRxiv every week making controversial arguments and/or arriving at far-fetched conclusions, often patronising to the efforts of the subject’s better exponents. Most of them (at least according to what I know of preprints on arXiv) are debated and laid to rest by scientists familiar with the topics at hand. No non-expert is hitting up arXiv or bioRxiv every morning looking for preprints to go crazy on. The ones that become controversial enough to catch the attention of non-experts have, nine times out of then, been amplified to that effect by a journalist who didn’t suitably qualify the preprint’s claims and simply published it. Suddenly, scores (or more) of non-experts have acquired what they think is refined knowledge, and public opinion thereafter goes against the scientific grain.

Acknowledging that this collection of events is a problem on many levels, which particular event would you say is the deeper one?

Some say it’s the preprint mode of publishing, and when asked for an alternative, demand that the use of preprint servers be discouraged. But this wouldn’t solve the problem. Preprint papers are a relatively new development while ‘bad science’ has been published for a long time. More importantly, preprint papers improve public access to science, and preprints that contain good science do this even better.

To making sweeping statements against the preprint publishing enterprise because some preprints are bad is not fair, especially to non-expert enthusiasts (like journalists, bloggers, students) in developing countries, who typically can’t afford the subscription fees to access paywalled, peer-reviewed papers. (Open-access publishing is a solution too but it doesn’t seem to feature in the present pseudo-debate nor does it address important issues that beset itself as well as paywalled papers.)

Even more, if we admitted that bad journalism is the problem, as it really is, we achieve two things: prevent ‘bad science’ from reaching the larger population and retain access to ‘good science’.

Now, to the finer issue of health- and medicine-related preprints: Yes, acting based on the conclusions of a preprint paper – such as ingesting an untested drug or paying too much attention to an irrelevant symptom – during a health crisis in a country with insufficient hospitals and doctors can prove deadlier than usual. But how on Earth could a person have found that preprint paper, read it well enough to understand what it was saying, and act on its conclusions? (Put this way, a bad journalist could be even more to blame for enabling access to a bad study by translating its claims to simpler language.)

Next, a study published in The Lancet claimed – and thus allowed others to claim by reference – that most conversations about the novel coronavirus have been driven by preprint papers. (An article in Ars Technica on May 6 carried this provocative headline, for example: ‘Unvetted science is fuelling COVID-19 misinformation’.) However, the study was based on only 11 papers. In addition, those who invoke this study in support of arguments directed against preprints often fail to mention the following paragraph, drawn from the same paper:

… despite the advantages of speedy information delivery, the lack of peer review can also translate into issues of credibility and misinformation, both intentional and unintentional. This particular drawback has been highlighted during the ongoing outbreak, especially after the high-profile withdrawal of a virology study from the preprint server bioRxiv, which erroneously claimed that COVID-19 contained HIV “insertions”. The very fact that this study was withdrawn showcases the power of open peer-review during emergencies; the withdrawal itself appears to have been prompted by outcry from dozens of scientists from around the globe who had access to the study because it was placed on a public server. Much of this outcry was documented on Twitter and on longer-form popular science blogs, signalling that such fora would serve as rich additional data sources for future work on the impact of preprints on public discourse. However, instances such as this one described showcase the need for caution when acting upon the science put forth by any one preprint.”

The authors, Maimuna Majumder and Kenneth Mandl, have captured the real problem. Lots of preprints are being uploaded every week and quite a few are rotten. Irrespective of how many do or don’t drive public conversations (especially on the social media), it’s disingenuous to assume this risk by itself suffices to cut access.

Instead, as the scientists write, exercise caution. Instead of spoiling a good thing, figure out a way to improve the reporting habits of errant journalists. Otherwise, remember that nothing stops an irresponsible journalist from sensationalising the level-headed conclusions of a peer-reviewed paper either. All it takes is to quote from a grossly exaggerated university press-release and to not consult with an independent expert. Even opposing preprints with peer-reviewed papers only advances a false balance, comparing preprints’ access advantage to peer-review’s gatekeeping advantage (and even that is on shaky ground).

The journalist as expert

I recently turned down some requests for interviews because the topics of discussion in each case indicated that I would be treated as a scientist, not a science journalist (something that happened shortly after the Balakot airstrikes and the ASAT test as well). I suspect science and more so health journalists are being seen as important sources of information at this crucial time for four reasons (in increasing order of importance, at least as I see it):

1. We often have the latest information – This is largely self-explanatory except for the fact that since we discover a lot of information first-hand, often from researchers to whom the context in which the information is valid may be obvious but who may not communicate that, we also have a great responsibility to properly contextualise what we know before dissemination. Many of us do, many of us don’t, but either way both groups come across as being informed to their respective audiences.

2. We’re “temporary experts”.

3. We’re open to conversations when others aren’t – I can think of a dozen experts who could replace me in the interviews I described and do a better job of communicating the science and more importantly the uncertainty. However, a dozen isn’t a lot, and journalists and any other organisations committed to spreading awareness are going to be hard-pressed to find new voices. At this time, science/health journalists could be seen as stand-in experts: we’re up-to-date, we’re (largely) well-versed with the most common issues, and unlike so many experts we’re often willing to talk.

4. It would seem journalists are the only members of society who are synthesising different schools of thought, types of knowledge and stories of ground realities into an emergent whole. This is a crucial role and, to be honest, I was quite surprised no one else is doing this – until I realised the problem. Our scholastic and academic systems may have disincentivised such holism, choosing instead to pursue more and more specialised and siloised paths. But even then the government should be bringing together different pieces of the big picture, and putting them together to design multifaceted policies and inventions, but isn’t doing so. So journalists could be seen as the only people who are.

Now, given these reasons, is treating journalists as experts so bad?

It’s really not, actually. Journalism deserves more than to be perceived as an adjacent enterprise – something that attaches itself on to a mature substrate of knowledge instead of being part of the substrate itself. There are some journalists who have insightfully combined, say, what they know about scientific publishing with what they know about research funding to glimpse a bigger picture still out of reach of many scientists. There is certainly a body of knowledge that cannot be derived from the first principles of each of its components alone, and which journalists are uniquely privileged to discover. I also know of a few journalists who are better committed to evidence and civic duty than many scientists, in turn producing knowledge of greater value. Finally, insofar as knowledge is also produced through the deliberate opposition of diverse perspectives, journalists contribute every time they report on a preprint paper, bringing together multiple independent experts – sometimes from different fields – to comment on the paper’s merits and demerits.

But there are some issues on the flip side. For example, not all knowledge is emergent in this way, and more importantly journalists make for poor experts on average when what we don’t know is as important as what we know. And when lives are at stake, anyone who is being invited to participate in an interview, panel discussion or whatever should consider – even if the interviewer hasn’t – whether what they say could cause harm, and if they can withstand any social pressure to not be seen to be ignorant and say “I don’t know” when warranted. And even then, there can be very different implications depending on whether it’s a journalist or an expert saying “I don’t know”.

Even more importantly, journalists need to be recognised in their own right, instead of being hauled into the limelight as quasi-experts instead of as people who practice a craft of their own. This may seem like a minor issue of perception but it’s important to maintain the distinction between the fourth estate and other enterprises lest journalism’s own responsibilities become subsumed by those of the people and organisations journalists write about or – worse yet – lest they are offset by demands that society has been unable to meet in other ways. If a virologist can’t be found for an interview, a journalist is a barely suitable replacement, except if the conversation is going to be sharply focused on specific issues the journalist is very familiar with, but even then it’s not the perfect solution.

If a virologist or a holist (as in the specific way mentioned above) can’t be found, the ideal way forward would be to look harder for another virologist or holist, and in doing so come up against the unique challenges to accessing expertise in India. In this regard, if journalists volunteer themselves as substitutes, they risk making excuses for a problem they actually needed to be highlighting.

The gaudy-hued beast

When you wake up in the morning to news of four people who allegedly raped a woman having been shot to death by the police, it’s hard not to ask yourself what kind of country this is. It’s even harder when you see political leaders and celebrities publicly applauding this extra-judicial killing, sparing no thought for their passive rejection of the country’s justice system and endorsement of populist politics at its most abject.

As a journalist with a news organisation where impact is just as important as reach, if not more, and where conviction (rooted in facts and certain cultural sensibilities) is our coin, I also couldn’t help internalise a bit of failure for not having been able to effect change. After a team of two dozen people (on average), plus thousands of reporters and freelancers, spent nearly five years of labour and crores of rupees trying – among various things – to infuse more faith in democratic principles enshrined in the constitution, the breadth of episodes like the present one really highlight, in gaudy colours, the giant beast that confronts us.

Of course, this is somewhat self-aggrandising: some newspapers as well as numerous public and private institutions have been trying to improve the way people think for over a century. (I’m sure the idea that society simply awaits instructions on how to conduct itself is also very flawed, but I hope you know that’s not what I mean in this text.) Different people glimpse the true avatar of the challenges they face in different ways, and I glimpsed mine after starting at The Wire.

Anyway, as such disappointing episodes pile up, quickly surpassing the Ghaziabad landfill in volume as well as stench, the sensation of having failed is bound to become your best friend, and whose presence is easily compounded if your beat is not as eye-catching as politics or political economics. It affects your ability to think straight, encouraging you to accommodate misanthropic sentiments in your evaluation of other people and their words or actions, and interferes with the reward mechanisms that used to make you feel good every time you finished writing a story.

I don’t want to delineate how people deal with such emotions because, and after insisting that that there are ways to deal with such emotions, I think there is very little acknowledgment in the first place that such an issue even exists. Organisations (at least English-language newsrooms in India) that employ journalists don’t openly discuss the sort of mental make-up a person needs to remain resilient, confident and productive at once, to be able to retain enough of their conviction and strength in the face of repeated setbacks. As far as I know, there are no institutional mechanisms of redressal either.

The bit about confidence is particularly important if only because a journalism of pessimism, an endeavour utterly incapable of imagining a better future, can only be corrosive to society, and it bodes even worse for a journalist on the job to spiral into cynicism as a result of their work. So as I have no doubt that the gaudy-hued beast that looms in front of us is only going to get bigger and badder if India’s socio-political culture continues to stagnate in its current form, I also hope that people – especially, but not only, employers – recognise that not everyone can be a healthy journalist all the time. And when they’re not, it would be great, for starters, to talk about it.

Featured image credit: Donovan Reeves/Unsplash. Effects: PHOTOMOSH.

Credit: Free-Photos/pixabay

The technically correct strapline

(Re)Stumbled upon this article, by Ed Yong in The Atlantic, July 2016, this morning. As usual, it is rivetingly packaged. The strapline in particular caught my eye:

Biology textbooks tell us that lichens are alliances between two organisms—a fungus and an alga. They are wrong.

Makes you go “Wow”, doesn’t it? But then you read the article and realise the strap is not entirely right. Lichens are still symbiotic unions of fungi and algae; the new finding is that there are two types of fungi involved, not one. You realise it’s the sort of blurb that only a pedantic biologist might be able to defend, or the sort of blurb most readers could be expected to gloss over because the article’s author is Ed Yong.

I would never have used this strapline to describe the story. Instead, here’s the one we did use for Nandita Jayaraj’s story on the same topic:

Lichens are the most famous and successful examples of symbiosis on Earth, but an unexpected discovery of a third player in this composite organism has given their study a much needed jolt.

As R. Prasad, the science editor of The Hindu, says,

… the strapline (or deck) together with the headline makes the sales pitch to the reader for her time. The headline is often the sole bit of metadata that will be most visible on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and is the one that’ll be most commonly shared (my guess). This way, the headline makes the all-important elevator pitch to bring the reader off of her platform and onto our site. Once she’s here, the strapline makes a more extended pitch to get her to start reading the body.

For curiosity gap headlines, the strapline often heightens the curiosity instead of fulfilling it. This is also true in the Ed Yong article: the headline makes you wonder what bit of biology was overturned; the strapline takes over from there, focuses your imagination into the niche, and still keeps you wondering (not necessarily about the same thing). The question here to me is whether it’s okay to be only technically right in the strapline because it’s still part of the inverted pyramid, where you can get away with making generalisations at the top as you funnel the reader’s curiosity into more specific niches below.

As a prolific consumer of science writing both fab and crap, The Atlantic‘s strap is not good enough for me; it’s a letdown. While Yong does a typically good job of dramatising the reveal, it pales in comparison to what the strap seemed to suggest. Such a description would be par for the course on, say, the Times of India, but I would expect much better from The Atlantic. It often feels like the smaller publishers are held to higher standards than the bigger ones, and in this sense The Atlantic certainly towers over The Wire.

Featured image credit: Free-Photos/pixabay.

On that Poynter debate about stock images and ethical visual journalism

Response to Mark Johnson, Article about free images ‘contradicts everything I hold true about journalism’, Poynter, February 9, 2018. 

Let’s get the caveats out of the way:

  • The article to which Johnson is responding did get some of its messaging wrong. As Johnson wrote, it suggested the following: “We don’t think about visuals BUT visuals are critically important. The solutions offered amount to scouring the web for royalty-free and (hopefully) copyright-released stock images.”
  • In doing so, the original article may have further diminished prospects for visual journalists in newsrooms around the country (whether the US or India), especially since Poynter is such a well-regarded publisher among editors and since there already aren’t enough jobs available on the visual journalism front.
  • I think visual journalists are important in any newsroom that includes a visual presentation component because they’re particularly qualified to interrogate how journalism can be adapted to multimedia forms and in what circumstances such adaptations can strain or liberate its participants’ moral and ethical positions.

That said, IMO Johnson himself may have missed a bit of the nuances of this issue. Before we go ahead: I’m going to shorten “royalty-free and/or copyright-released” to CC0, which is short for the Creative Commons ‘No Rights Reserved’ license. It allows “scientists, educators, artists and other creators and owners of copyright- or database-protected content to waive those interests in their works and thereby place them as completely as possible in the public domain, so that others may freely build upon, enhance and reuse the works for any purposes without restriction under copyright or database law.” However, what I’m going to say should be true for most other CC licenses (including BY, BY-SA, BY-SA-NC, BY-SA-ND and BY-SA-NC-ND).

By providing an option for publishers to look for CC0 images, the authors of the original piece may have missed an important nuance: publishers come in varying sizes; the bigger the publisher is, the less excusable it is for it to not have a visual journalism department in-house. For smaller (and the smallest) publishers, however, having access to CC0 images is important because (a) producing original images and videos can invoke prohibitive costs and (b) distribution channels of choice such as Facebook and Twitter penalise the absence of images on links shared on these platforms.

Bigger publishers have an option and should, to the extent possible, exercise that option to hire illustrators, designers, video producers and reporters, podcasters, etc. To not do so would be to abdicate professional responsibilities. However, in the interest of leveraging the possibilities afforded by the internet as well as of keeping our news professional but also democratic, it’s not fair to assume that it’s okay to penalise smaller publishers simply because they’re resorting to using CC0 images. A penalty it will be if they don’t: Facebook, for example, will deprioritise their content on people’s feeds. So the message that needs to be broadcast is that it’s okay for smaller publishers to use CC0 images but also that it’s important for them to break away from the practice as they grow.

Second: Johnson writes,

Choosing stock images for news stories is an ethically questionable choice — you don’t know the provenance of the image, you don’t know the conditions under which it was created and you don’t know where else it has been used. It degrades the journalistic integrity of the site. Flip it around — what if there were generic quotes inserted into a story? They wouldn’t advance the narrative at all, they would just act as filler.

He’s absolutely right to equate text and images: they both help tell a story and they should both be treated with equal respect and consequence. (Later in his article, Johnson goes on to suggest visuals may in fact be more consequential because people tend to remember them better.) However, characterising stock images as the journalistic equivalent of blood diamonds is unfair.

For example, it’s not clear what Johnson means by “generic quotes”. Sometimes, some quotes are statements that need to be printed to reflect its author’s official position (or lack thereof). For another, stock images may not be completely specific to a story but they could fit its broader theme, for example, in a quasi-specific way (after all, there are millions of CC0 images to pick from).

But most importantly, the allegations drub the possibilities of the Open Access (OA) movement in the realms of digital knowledge-production and publishing. By saying, “Choosing stock images for news stories is an ethically questionable choice”, Johnson risks offending those who create visual assets and share it with a CC0 license expressly to inject it into the public domain – a process by which those who are starved of resources in one part of the world are not also starved of information produced in another. Journalism shouldn’t – can’t – be free because it includes some well-defined value-adds that need to be paid for. But information (and sometimes knowledge) can be free, especially if those generating them are willing to waive being paid for them.

My go-to example has been The Conversation. Its articles are written by experts with PhDs in the subjects they’re writing about (and are affiliated with reputable institutions). The website is funded by contributions from universities and labs. The affiliations of its contributors and their conflicts of interest, if any, are acknowledged with every article. Best of all, its articles are all available to republish for free under at least a CC BY license. Their content is not of the ‘stock’ variety; their sentences and ideas are not generic. Reusing their articles may not advance the narrative inherent in them but would I say it hurts journalists? No.

Royalty-free and copyright-released images and videos free visual journalists from being involved every step of the way. This is sadly but definitely necessary in circumstances where they might not get paid, where there might not be the room, inclination or expertise necessary to manage and/or work with them, where an audience might not exist that values their work and time.

This is where having, using and contributing to a digital commons can help. Engaging with it is a choice, not a burden. Ignoring those who make this choice to argue that every editor must carefully consider the visual elements of a story together with experts and technicians hired just for this purpose is akin to suggesting that proponents of OA/CC0 content are jeopardising opportunities for visual journalists to leave their mark. This is silly, mostly because it leaves the central agent out of the picture: the publisher.

It’s a publisher’s call to tell a story through just text, just visuals or both. Not stopping to chide those who can hire visual journalists but don’t while insisting “it’s a big part of what we do” doesn’t make sense. Not stopping to help those who opt for text-only because that’s what they can afford doesn’t make sense either.

Featured image credit: StockSnap/pixabay.

To watch ‘The Post’

I read a few reviews of The Post. Based on what the critics are saying, it seems the film has at least the potential to raise the spirits of many journalists today who could use a leg up. That said, I do resent that some of my friends and peers think I should be more excited about the film. This is how my conversations with them have generally gone.

§

Have you watched The Post?

No.

OMG, why not?!

You mean you’d like me to be excited about watching a film about a story based in the industry I work day in, day out but about which you don’t give a damn unless it’s brought to life by a pair of pompous (not to mention white) Hollywood actors while also blissfully ignorant of the fact that dangerous and consequential choices of the kind the journalists probably make in the film are made on a daily basis by journalists in many parts of the world?

… yeah.

Or do you mean have I watched the film about a story based in the industry I work day in, day out and I’m quite likely to know about but you wouldn’t acknowledge that until I joined the rest of you, went to the movies and finally walked away feeling its makers had mangled both the spirit of what had actually happened and reduced it down to the valour of a few people, when in fact a lot more hearts and minds went into achieving what they had, just so a small group of well-established actors could draw all the attention – while you walk away feeling the film was how things had actually happened and that I’m the cynic whose cynicism won’t switch off?

I’m going to walk away from you now.

Featured image credit: DieElchin/pixabay.

To watch 'The Post'

I read a few reviews of The Post. Based on what the critics are saying, it seems the film has at least the potential to raise the spirits of many journalists today who could use a leg up. That said, I do resent that some of my friends and peers think I should be more excited about the film. This is how my conversations with them have generally gone.

§

Have you watched The Post?

No.

OMG, why not?!

You mean you’d like me to be excited about watching a film about a story based in the industry I work day in, day out but about which you don’t give a damn unless it’s brought to life by a pair of pompous (not to mention white) Hollywood actors while also blissfully ignorant of the fact that dangerous and consequential choices of the kind the journalists probably make in the film are made on a daily basis by journalists in many parts of the world?

… yeah.

Or do you mean have I watched the film about a story based in the industry I work day in, day out and I’m quite likely to know about but you wouldn’t acknowledge that until I joined the rest of you, went to the movies and finally walked away feeling its makers had mangled both the spirit of what had actually happened and reduced it down to the valour of a few people, when in fact a lot more hearts and minds went into achieving what they had, just so a small group of well-established actors could draw all the attention – while you walk away feeling the film was how things had actually happened and that I’m the cynic whose cynicism won’t switch off?

I’m going to walk away from you now.

Featured image credit: DieElchin/pixabay.

In solidarity with Nautilus's writers

In April this year, Undark published a piece that caught me by surprise: Nautilus magazine was going broke. Actually, it wasn’t a surprise that lasted long. Nautilus, to me, had been doing a commendable job of being ‘the New Yorker version of the Scientific American‘, an aspiration of its own phrasing, by publishing thought-provoking science writing. At the same time, it was an extravagant production: its award-winning website, the award-winning illustrations that accompanied every article, and the award-winning writing itself I knew must have cost a lot to produce.

The Undark report confirmed it: Nautilus had burned through $10 million in five years.

But what had gone unsaid was that, in this time, Nautilus had also commissioned many pieces that it knew it wouldn’t be able to pay for. This is according to a bunch of science writers who have come together under a ‘National Writers Union’ and asked that Nautilus settle their collective dues – a total of $50,000 – or face legal action. Before you think they’re being rash, remember that many of them haven’t been paid for over a year, that they’re on average each owed $2,500, and one among them is owed a staggering $11,000.

I laud these writers, 19 in all, for what they’re doing. It wouldn’t have been easy to have to force a publication that’s struggling financially to settle its bills, a publication that, while functional, was likely a unique platform to present those ideas that wouldn’t have found a home elsewhere. And – though I’m not sure what it’s worth – I stand with the writers in solidarity #paynautiluswriters. As The Wire‘s science editor, I’ve often had to turn down interesting pitches and submissions because I’d spent all my commissioning money for that month. It was painful to not be able to publish these pieces but it would have been indefensible to take them on anyway – but that’s what Nautilus seems to have done.

When Undark‘s report was published, I’d blogged about Nautilus‘s plight and speculated about where they could’ve gone wrong, assisted by my experience helping build The Wire. I’d like to reiterate what I’d written then. First: Nautilus may have taken on too much too soon. For example, the magazine may have put together awesome visuals to go with its stories but, from what we at The Wire have observed firsthand, readers are evaluating the writing above all else. So going easy on the presentation until achieving financial stability may not have been a bad idea. Second: In commissioning content it knew it couldn’t afford, Nautilus squandered any opportunity to build long-term relationships with the people whose words and ideas made it what it is.

The open letter penned by the science writers to Nautilus also brings another development to the fore. When John Steele, Nautilus‘s publisher, had been under pressure to pay his writers earlier this year, he had cleared some partial payments while simultaneously them promising that the remainder would come through when the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) had finished ‘absorbing’ Nautilus into itself. This didn’t bode well then because it left the consequences of this acquisition on the magazine’s editorial independence unclear. Since then, the letter says, the acquisition has fallen through.

While I’m not unhappy that Nautilus isn’t merging with the AAAS, I’m concerned about where this leaves Steele’s promise to pay the writers. I’m also concernfully curious about where the money is going to come from. Think about it: a magazine that used up $10 million in five years is now struggling to put together $50,000. This is a sign of gross mismanagement and is not something that could’ve caught the leadership at Nautilus by surprise. Someone there had to know their ship was sinking fast and, going by Steele’s promise, put all their eggs in the AAAS basket. One way or another, this was never going to end well.

Featured image credit: NWU.

In solidarity with Nautilus’s writers

In April this year, Undark published a piece that caught me by surprise: Nautilus magazine was going broke. Actually, it wasn’t a surprise that lasted long. Nautilus, to me, had been doing a commendable job of being ‘the New Yorker version of the Scientific American‘, an aspiration of its own phrasing, by publishing thought-provoking science writing. At the same time, it was an extravagant production: its award-winning website, the award-winning illustrations that accompanied every article, and the award-winning writing itself I knew must have cost a lot to produce.

The Undark report confirmed it: Nautilus had burned through $10 million in five years.

But what had gone unsaid was that, in this time, Nautilus had also commissioned many pieces that it knew it wouldn’t be able to pay for. This is according to a bunch of science writers who have come together under a ‘National Writers Union’ and asked that Nautilus settle their collective dues – a total of $50,000 – or face legal action. Before you think they’re being rash, remember that many of them haven’t been paid for over a year, that they’re on average each owed $2,500, and one among them is owed a staggering $11,000.

I laud these writers, 19 in all, for what they’re doing. It wouldn’t have been easy to have to force a publication that’s struggling financially to settle its bills, a publication that, while functional, was likely a unique platform to present those ideas that wouldn’t have found a home elsewhere. And – though I’m not sure what it’s worth – I stand with the writers in solidarity #paynautiluswriters. As The Wire‘s science editor, I’ve often had to turn down interesting pitches and submissions because I’d spent all my commissioning money for that month. It was painful to not be able to publish these pieces but it would have been indefensible to take them on anyway – but that’s what Nautilus seems to have done.

When Undark‘s report was published, I’d blogged about Nautilus‘s plight and speculated about where they could’ve gone wrong, assisted by my experience helping build The Wire. I’d like to reiterate what I’d written then. First: Nautilus may have taken on too much too soon. For example, the magazine may have put together awesome visuals to go with its stories but, from what we at The Wire have observed firsthand, readers are evaluating the writing above all else. So going easy on the presentation until achieving financial stability may not have been a bad idea. Second: In commissioning content it knew it couldn’t afford, Nautilus squandered any opportunity to build long-term relationships with the people whose words and ideas made it what it is.

The open letter penned by the science writers to Nautilus also brings another development to the fore. When John Steele, Nautilus‘s publisher, had been under pressure to pay his writers earlier this year, he had cleared some partial payments while simultaneously them promising that the remainder would come through when the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) had finished ‘absorbing’ Nautilus into itself. This didn’t bode well then because it left the consequences of this acquisition on the magazine’s editorial independence unclear. Since then, the letter says, the acquisition has fallen through.

While I’m not unhappy that Nautilus isn’t merging with the AAAS, I’m concerned about where this leaves Steele’s promise to pay the writers. I’m also concernfully curious about where the money is going to come from. Think about it: a magazine that used up $10 million in five years is now struggling to put together $50,000. This is a sign of gross mismanagement and is not something that could’ve caught the leadership at Nautilus by surprise. Someone there had to know their ship was sinking fast and, going by Steele’s promise, put all their eggs in the AAAS basket. One way or another, this was never going to end well.

Featured image credit: NWU.