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A Q&A about my job and science journalism

A couple weeks ago, some students from a university in South India got in touch to ask a few questions about my job and about science communication. The correspondence was entirely over email, and I’m pasting it in full below (with permission). I’ve edited a few parts in one of two ways – to make myself clearer or to hide sensitive information – and removed one question because its purpose was clarificatory.

1) What does your role as a science editor look like day to day?

My day as science editor begins at around 7 am. I start off by catching up on the day’s headlines and other news, especially all the major newspapers and social media channels. I also handle a part of The Wire Science‘s social media presence, so I schedule some posts in the first hour.

Then, from 8 am onwards, I begin going through the publishing schedule – which is a document I prepare on the previous evening, listing all the articles that writers are expected to file on that day, as well as what I need to edit/publish and in which position on the homepage. At 9.30 am, my colleagues and I get on a conference call to discuss the day’s top stories and to hear from our reporters on which stories they will be pursuing that day (and any stories we might be chasing ourselves). The call lasts for about an hour.

From 10.30-11 am onwards, I edit articles, reply to emails, commission new articles, discuss potential story ideas with some reporters, scientists and my colleagues, check on the news cycle every now and then, make sure the site is running smoothly, discuss changes or tweaks to be made to the front-end with our tech team, and keep an eye on my finances (how much I’ve commissioned for, who I need to pay, payment deadlines, pending allocations, etc.).

All of this ends at about 4.30 pm. I close my laptop at that point but I continue to have work until 6 pm or so, mostly in the form of emails and maybe some calls. The last thing I do is prepare the publishing schedule for the next day. Then I shut shop.

2) With leading global newspapers restructuring the copy desk, what are the changes the Indian newspapers have made in the copy desk after the internet boom?

I’m not entirely familiar with the most recent changes because I stopped working with a print establishment six years ago. When I was part of the editorial team at The Hindu, the most significant change related to the advent of the internet had less to do with the copy desk per se and more to do with the business model. At least the latter seemed more pressing to me.

But this said, in my view there is a noticeable difference between how one might write for a newspaper and for the web. So a more efficient copy-editing team has to be able to handle both styles, as well as be able to edit copy to optimise for audience engagement and readability both online and offline.

3) Indian publications are infamous for mistakes in the copy. Is this a result of competition for breaking news or a lack of knack for editing?

This is a question I have been asking myself since I started working. I think a part of the answer you’re looking for lies in the first statement of your question. Indian copy-editors are “infamous for mistakes” – but mistakes according to whom?

The English language came to India in different ways, it is not homegrown. British colonists brought English to India, so English took root in India as the language of administration. English is the de facto language worldwide for the conduct of science, so scientists have to learn it. Similarly, there are other ways in which the use of English has been rendered useful and important and necessary. English wasn’t all these things in and of itself, not without its colonial underpinnings.

So today, in India, English is – among other things – the language you learn to be employable, especially with MNCs or such. And because of its historical relationships, English is taught only in certain schools, schools that typically have mostly students from upper-caste/upper-class families. English is also spoken only by certain groups of people who may wish to secret it as a class symbol, etc. I’m speaking very broadly here. My point is that English is reserved typically for people who can afford it, both financially and socio-culturally. Not everyone speaks ‘good’ English (as defined by one particular lexicon or whatever) nor can they be expected to.

So what you may see as mistakes in the copy may just be a product of people not being fluent in English, and composing sentences in ways other than you might as a result. India has a contested relationship with English and that should only be expected at the level of newsrooms as well.

However, if your question had to do with carelessness among copy-editors – I don’t know if that is a very general problem (nor do I know what the issues might be in a newsroom publishing in an Indian language). Yes, in many establishments, the management doesn’t pay as much attention to the quality of writing as it should, perhaps in an effort to cut costs. And in such cases, there is a significant quality cost.

But again, we should ask ourselves as to whom that affects. If a poorly edited article is impossible to read or uses words and ideas carelessly, or twists facts, that is just bad. But if a poorly composed article is able to get its points across without misrepresenting anyone, whom does that affect? No one, in my opinion, so that is okay. (It could also be the case that the person whose work you’re editing sees the way they write as a political act of sorts, and if you think such an issue might be in play, it becomes important to discuss it with them.)

Of course, the matter of getting one’s point across is very subjective, and as a news organisation we must ensure the article is edited to the extent that there can be no confusion whatsoever – and edited that much more carefully if it’s about sensitive issues, like the results of a scientific study. And at the same time we must also stick to a word limit and think about audience engagement.

My job as the editor is to ensure that people are understood, but in order to help them be understood better and better, I must be aware of my own privileges and keep subtracting them from the editorial equation (in my personal case: my proficiency with the English language, which includes many Americanisms and Britishisms). I can’t impose my voice on my writers in the name of helping them. So there is a fine line here that editors need to tread carefully.

4) What are the key points that a science editor should keep in mind while dealing with copy?

Aside from the points I raised in my previous answer, there are some issues that are specific to being a good science editor. I don’t claim to be good (that is for others to say) – but based on what I have seen in the pages of other publications, I would only say that not every editor can be a science editor without some specific training first. This is because there are some things that are specific to science as an enterprise, as a social affair, that are not immediately apparent to people who don’t have a background in science.

For example, the most common issue I see is in the way scientific papers are reported – as if they are the last word on that topic. Many people, including many journalists, seem to think that if a scientific study has found coffee cures cancer, then it must be that coffee cures cancer, period. But every scientific paper is limited by the context in which the experiment was conducted, by the limits of what we already know, etc.

I have heard some people define science as a pursuit of the truth but in reality it’s a sort of opposite – science is a way to subtract uncertainty. Imagine shining a torch within a room as you’re looking for something, except the torch can only find things that you don’t want, so you can throw them away. Then you turn on the lights. Papers are frequently wrong and/or are updated to yield new results. This seldom makes the previous paper directly fraudulent or wrong; it’s just the way science works. And this perspective on science can help you think through what a science editor’s job is as well.

Another thing that’s important to know is that science progresses in incremental fashion and that the more sensational results are either extremely unlikely or simply misunderstood.

If you are keen on plumbing deeper depths, you could also consider questions about where authority comes from and how it is constructed in a narrative, the importance of indeterminate knowledge-states, the pros and cons of scientism, what constitutes scientific knowledge, how scientific publishing works, etc.

A science editor has to know all these things and ensure that in the process of running a newsroom or editing a publication, they don’t misuse, misconstrue or misrepresent scientific work and scientists. And in this process, I think it’s important for a science editor to not be considered to be subservient to the interests of science or scientists. Editors have their own goals, and more broadly speaking science communication in all forms needs to be seen and addressed in its own right – as an entity that doesn’t owe anything to science or scientists, per se.

5) In a country where press freedom is often sacrificed, how does one deal with political pieces, especially when there is proof against a matter concerning the government?

I’m not sure what you mean by “proof against a matter concerning the government.” But in my view, the likelihood of different outcomes depends on the business model. If, for example, you the publisher make a lot of money from a hotshot industrialist and his company, then obviously you are going to tread carefully when handling stories about that person or the company. How you make your money dictates who you are ultimately answerable to. If you make your money by selling newspapers to your readers, or collecting donations from them like The Wire does, you are answerable to your readers.

In this case, if we are handling a story in which the government is implicated in a bad way, we will do our due diligence and publish the story. This ‘due diligence’ is important: you need to be sure you have the requisite proof, that all parts of the story are reliable and verifiable, that you have documentary evidence of your claims, and that you have given the implicated party a chance to defend themselves (e.g. by being quoted in the story).

This said, absolute press freedom is not so simple to achieve. It doesn’t just need brave editors and reporters. It also needs institutions that will protect journalists’ rights and freedoms, and also shield them reliably from harm or malice. If the courts are not likely to uphold a journalist’s rights or if the police refuse proper protection when the threat of physical violence is apparent, blaming journalists for “sacrificing” press freedom is ignorant. There is a risk-benefit analysis worth having here, if only to remember that while the benefit of a free press is immense, the risks shouldn’t be taken lightly.

6) Research papers are lengthy and editors have deadlines. How do you make sure to communicate information with the right context for a wider audience?

Often the quickest way to achieve this is to pick your paper and take it to an independent scientist working in the same field. These independent comments are important for the story. But specific to your question, these scientists – if they have the time and are so inclined – can often also help you understand the paper’s contents properly, and point out potential issues, flaws, caveats, etc. These inputs can help you compose your story faster.

I would also say that if you are an editor looking for an article on a newly published research paper, you would be better off commissioning a reporter who is familiar, to whatever extent, with that topic. Obviously if you assign a business reporter to cover a paper about nanofluidic biosensors, the end result is going to be somewhere between iffy and disastrous. So to make sure the story has got its context right, I would begin by assigning the right reporter and making sure they’ve got comments from independent scientists in their copy.

7) What are some of the major challenges faced by science communicators and reporters in India?

This is a very important question, and I can’t hope to answer it concisely or even completely. In January this year, the office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India organised a meeting with a couple dozen science journalists and communicators from around India. I was one of the attendees. Many of the issues we discussed, which would also be answers to your question, are described here.

If, for the purpose of your assignment, you would like me to pick one – I would go with the fact that science journalism, and science communication more broadly, is not widely acknowledged as an enterprise in its own right. As a result, many people don’t see the value in what science journalists do. A second and closely related issue is that scientists often don’t respond on time, even if they respond at all. I’m not sure of the extent to which this is an etiquette issue. But by calling it an etiquette issue, I also don’t want to overlook the possibility that some scientists don’t respond because they don’t think science journalism is important.

I was invited to attend the Young Investigators’ Meeting in Guwahati in March 2019. There, I met a big bunch of young scientists who really didn’t know why science journalism exists or what its purpose is. One of them seemed to think that since scientific papers pass through peer review and are published in journals, science journalists are wasting their time by attempting to discuss the contents of those papers with a general audience. This is an unnecessary barrier to my work – but it persists, so I must constantly work around or over it.

8) What are the consequences if a research paper has been misreported?

The consequence depends on the type and scope of misreporting. If you have consulted an independent scientist in the course of your reporting, you give yourself a good chance of avoiding reporting mistakes.

But of course mistakes do slip through. And with an online publication such as The Wire – if a published article is found to have a mistake, we usually correct the mistake once it has been pointed out to us, along with a clarification at the bottom of the article acknowledging the issue and recording the time at which the change was made. If you write an article that is printed and is later found to have a mistake, the newspaper will typically issue an erratum (a small note correcting a mistake) the next day.

If an article is found to have a really glaring mistake after it is published – and I mean an absolute howler – the article could be taken down or retracted from the newspaper’s record along with an explanation. But this rarely happens.

9) In many ways, copy editing disconnects you from your voice. Does it hamper your creativity as a writer?

It’s hard to find room for one’s voice in a news publication. About nine-tenths of the time, each of us is working on a news copy, in which a voice is neither expected nor can add much value of its own. This said, when there is room to express oneself more, to write in one’s voice, so to speak, copy-editing doesn’t have to remove it entirely.

Working with voices is a tricky thing. When writers pitch or write articles in which their voices are likely to show up, I always ask them beforehand as to what they intend to express. This intention is important because it helps me edit the article accordingly (or decide whether to edit it at all). The writer’s voice is part of this negotiation. Like I said before, my job as the editor is to make sure my writers convey their points clearly and effectively. And if I find that their voice conflicts with the message or vice versa, I will discuss it with them. It’s a very contested process and I don’t know if there is a black-and-white answer to your question.

It’s always possible, of course, if you’re working with a bad editor and they just remodel your work to suit their needs without checking with you. But short of that, it’s a negotiation.

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Life notes Scicomm

Stenograph the science down

A piece in Zee News, headlined ISRO to test next reusable launch vehicle after studying data of May 23 flight, begins thus:

The Indian Space Research Organisation has successfully launched it’s first ever ‘Made-in-India’ space shuttle RLV-Technology Demonstrator on May 23, 2016. After the launch, the Indian space agency will now test the next reusable launch vehicle test after studying May 23 flight data. A senior official in the Indian space agency says that India will test the next set of space technologies relating to the reusable launch vehicle (RLV) after studying the data collected from the May 23 flight of RLV-Technology Demonstrator. “We will have to study the data generated from the May 23 flight. Then we have to decide on the next set of technologies to be tested on the next flight. We have not finalised the time frame for the next RLV flight,” K Sivan, director, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) said on Wednesday.

Apart from presenting very little new information with each passing sentence, the piece also buries an important quote, and what could well have been the piece’s real peg, more than half the way down:

As per data the RLV-TD landed softly in Bay of Bengal. As per our calculations it would have disintegrated at the speed at which it touched the sea,” Sivan said.

It sounds like Sivan is admitting to a mistake in the calculations. There should have been a follow-up question at this point – asking him to elaborate on the mismatch – because this is valuable new information. Instead, the piece marches on as if Sivan had just commented on the weather. And in hindsight, the piece’s first few paragraphs present information that is blatantly obvious: of course results from the first test are going to inform the design of the second test. What new information are we to glean from such a statement?

Or is it that we’re paying no attention to the science and instead reproducing Sivan’s words line by line because they’re made of gold?

A tangential comment: The piece’s second, third and fourth sentences say the same thing. Sandwiching one meaty sentence between layers of faff is a symptom of writing for newspapers – where there is some space to fill for the sake of there being some attention to grab. At the same time, such writing is unthinkingly carried to the web because many publishers believe that staking a claim to ‘publishing on the web’ only means making podcasts and interactive graphics. What about concision?

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Life notes

Making money

An experimental “democratic” revenue model for news publications new to the internet (that are reluctant to change their delivery styles)

 

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Culture

The post-reporter era

One of the foundation stones of journalism is the process of reporting. That there is a messenger working the gap between an event and a story provides for news to exist and exist with myriad nuances attached to it. There are ethical and moral issues, technical considerations, writing styles, and presentation formats to perfect. The entire news-publishing industry is centered on the activities of reporters and streamlining them.

What the reporter requires the most is… well, a few things. The first is a domain of events, from which he picks issues to talk about. The second is a domain of stories, into which he publishes his reports. The third is a platform using which he may incentivize this process for himself, and acquire the tools with which he may publish his stories efficiently and effectively. The last entity is more commonly understood in the form of a publishing house.

The reason I’ve broken the working of a reporter into these categories is to understand what makes a reporter at all. Today, a reporter is most commonly understood in terms of an individual who is employed with a publishing house and publishes stories for them. Ideally, however, everyone is a reporter: simply the creation of knowledge by people based on experiences around them should be qualification enough. This calls into question the role of a publishing house: is it a platform working with which reporters may function efficiently, or is it an employer of reporters?

If it’s an employer of reporters, then any publishing house wouldn’t have to worry about where the course of journalism is going to take the organization itself. Reporters will have to change the way they work – how they spot issues, evolving writing styles to suit their audiences, so forth – but the publishing house will retain ownership of the reporters themselves. As long as it’s not a platform which individuals use to function as reporters, things are going to be fine.

Now, let’s move to the post-reporter era, where everyone is a reporter (of course, that’s an idealized image, but even so). In this world, a reporter is not someone who works for a publishing house – that aspect of the word’s meaning is left behind in the age of the publishing house. In this world, a reporter is someone who works simply as a messenger between the domains of events and stories, where the role of the publishing house as the owner of reportage is absent.

The nature of such a world throws light on the valuation of information. When multiple reporters cover different events and return to HQ to file their stories, the house decides which stories make the cut and which don’t on the basis of a set of parameters. In other words, the house creates and assigns a particular value to each story, and then compares the values of different stories to determine their destiny.

In the post-reporter era, which is likely to be occupied by channels of individual presentation – ranging from word-of-mouth to full-scale websites – houses that thrive today on the valuation of information and the importance the houses’ readers place on it  will steadily fade out. What exists will be an all-encompassing form of what is known as citizen journalism (CJ) today. Houses take to CJ because of the mutually beneficial relationship available therein: the CJ gets the coverage and the advantage of the issue pursued no longer being under wraps; the reporter gets a story that has both civic/criminal and human-interest angles to it.

However, when the CJ voids the relationship by refusing the intervention of a publishing/broadcasting house, and chooses to take his story straight to the people through a channel he finds effective enough, the house-level valuation of stories is replaced by a democratic institution that may or may not be guided by a paternalistic attitude.

Therefore, if a particular house has to survive into the post-reporter era, it must discard issue-valuation as an engine and instead rely on some other entity, such as one represented by a parameter whose efficiency is a maximizable quantity. This can be conceived as a fourth domain which, upon maximization, becomes the superset of which the three domains are subsets.

A counter-productive entity in this situation is that of property, which is accrued in great quantities by a high-achieving house in the present but which delays the onset of change in the future. Even when the house starts to experience slightly rougher weather, its first move will be to pump in more money, thereby offsetting change by some time. Only when the amount of property invested in delaying change is considerable will the house start to consider other alternatives, by which time other competing organizations will have moved into the future.