India can claim some credit in high science, but the Indian media remains out of depth with science reportage.
Think of science reportage in India and the image that, ironically and sadly, comes to mind is of India TV taking us down the rabbit hole of superstitions.
From sundry babas performing chamatkars to snakes drinking copious quantities of milk under allegedly divine decree, India TV, along with some other Hindi channels, has forever jaundiced our view of what media can and should do when it comes to not only reporting on science but encouraging a scientific worldview.
While on the one hand, we have an endless procession of spiritual gurus discoursing on how to attain moksha, on the other, we have precious little on how things – physical, biological and chemical – work right here on earth.
It is not as if the media is completely blind to the world of science. When the NASA’s New Horizons probe beamed pictures of Pluto this week, it became international news. This was the first time we had been given a glimpse of the planet that lies at the outer edge of our solar system. The probe was launched a decade ago and travelled close to three billion miles to achieve this tremendous feat.
The Indian media duly covered the news but mostly in their “And finally” sections, showcasing pictures of the planet that had been released by NASA. That was television.
The newspapers repeated this in their sidebars. It all seemed like one jolly party, as though all of us should now be prepared to board a one-way flight to Pluto, but no one was any the wiser on why this was such a big deal. (The probe was a flyby, which places some of the breathtaking reports in the Indian media in context.)
That, in a capsule, epitomises science reporting in India, whatever little of it that we see. Go to town with big news involving space launches such as Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan, but not develop a pipeline of science reportage talent.
The dichotomy of the media of a country that can claim some credit in high science being so out of depth with science reportage in hard to reconcile.
Sure, Doordarshan runs a bevy of education channels, including those that tackle hard science, but none of their programming is engaging. Sundry professors either drone on about formulae, reinforcing the cycle of somnolence that characterises our broader attitudes towards science, or target IIT aspirants who are in a different league altogether.
But what about mainstream science programming targeted at the lay reader/viewer? Newspapers publish few real science articles, unlike, say, The Economist that has a dedicated science and technology section in each issue. The little science reporting that does occur pertains to climate change, but here too, the focus is on industry. The rising incidence of droughts and floods is rarely looked at from a scientific perspective.
The truth is the rapidly proliferating Indian media has never been great with science reporting. Except forNDTV’s Pallava Bagla and Economic Times’ Hari Pulakkat, no names come to mind when one thinks of science reporting by major media houses.
The one time science reportage makes news beyond the cursory nod to satellite or space launches is when it is a pointer to other social changes. When the Mangalyaan mission to Mars was successfully completed last year, we heard a lot less about the mission than we did about the group of women scientists who were part of the core team. A picture of them hugging and congratulating one another went viral.
While it was heartening to see so many women working on a high-science project in a country where women face multiple discriminations, the story also accentuated the media’s inherent disinterest in science news.
In fact, Doordarshan during the ‘80s and ‘90s did much better. When I was growing up, scientists like Yash Pal and Jayant Narlikar used to regularly appear on Doordarshan to share their views on the latest scientific discoveries. Dr Yash Pal, in particular, made for an engaging savant with his mop of unruly hair on his science programme, Turning Point.
What could be the reasons for a lack of science reportage among today’s media? One, of course, is that science reporting is not considered fun. Science is looked upon as this unreachable ideal, so why bother at all? This is a travesty because good science programming is not only essential but engaging. Stephen Colbert did a rip-roaring interview with science commentator Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Pluto images, which was both educative and interesting. Tyson is known in science circles to not consider Pluto a planet due to its relative smallness compared to the other eight planets of the solar system. Colbert took him to task on that view now that pictures have emerged. Tyson stuck to his guns but not before viewers learnt about “gravity drag” and the cheekily-named Pluto satellite, Sharon.
Besides, it’s not as if India has not had interesting science programming. Prof Yash Pal’s Turning Point made everyday science both accessible and interesting. To a young boy in the pre-Internet 1990s, Turning Point and the “Uncle Pai” series in Tinkle were go-to places for interesting stuff on science. Given the uninteresting way in which science was taught in the classroom, these two gentlemen were a Godsend for anyone looking to enjoy the discipline.
Besides, the academic situation with regard to science education is vastly different today. With the proliferation of international schools, science education has undergone a paradigm shift. But the media is yet to catch up, in spite of the fact that new-age tools can make science reporting easier.
In a country with still-low literacy levels, the media has a big role to play in educating the public in basic scientific knowledge. The demands of the market may not allow for documentary-style programming but why the media should assume that there is no other way to present science is worth investigating.
The author can be contacted on Twitter @VohariJikram. This article was republished from Newslaundry.com.