Talking about science, NCBS

On June 24, I was invited to talk at the NCBS Science Writing Workshop, held every year for 10 days. The following notes are some of my afterthoughts from that talk.

Science journalism online is doing better now than science journalism in print, in India. But before we discuss the many ways in which this statement is true, we need to understand what a science story can be as it is presented in the media. I’ve seen six kinds of science pieces:

1. Scientific information and facts – Reporting new inventions and discoveries, interesting hypotheses, breaking down complex information, providing background information. Examples: first detection of g-waves, Dicty World Race, etc.

2. Processes in science – Discussing opinions and debates, analysing how complex or uncertain issues are going to be resolved, unravelling investigations and experiments. Examples: second detection of g-waves, using CRISPR, etc.

3. Science policy – Questioning/analysing the administration of scientific work, funding, HR, women in STEM, short- and long-term research strategies, etc. Examples: analysing DST budgets, UGC’s API, etc.

4. People of science – Interviewing people, discussing choices and individual decisions, investigating the impact of modern scientific research on those who practice it. **Examples**: interviewing women in STEM, our Kip Thorne piece, etc.

5. Auxiliary science – Reporting on the impact of scientific processes/choices on other fields (typically closer to our daily lives), discussing the economic/sociological/political issues surrounding science but from an economic/sociological/political PoV. Examples: perovskite in solar cells, laying plastic roads, etc.

6. History and philosophy of science – Analysing historical and/or philosophical components of science. Examples: some of Mint on Sunday’s pieces, our columns by Aswin Seshasayee and Sunil Laxman, etc.

Some points:

1. Occasionally, a longform piece will combine all five types – but you shouldn’t force such a piece without an underlying story.

2. The most common type of science story is 5 – auxiliary science – because it is the easiest to sell. In these cases, the science itself plays second fiddle to the main issue.

3. Not all stories cleanly fall into one or the other bin. The best science pieces can’t always be said to be falling in this or that bin, but the worst pieces get 1 and 2 wrong, are misguided about 4 (but usually because they get 1 and 2 wrong) or misrepresent the science in 5.

4. Journalism is different from writing in that journalism has a responsibility to expose and present the truth. At the same time, 1, 2 and 6 stories – presenting facts in a simpler way, discussing processes, and discussing the history and philosophy of science – can be as much journalism as writing because they increase awareness of the character of science.

5. Despite the different ways in which we’ve tried to game the metrics, one thing has held true: content is king. A well-written piece with a good story at its heart may or may not do well – but a well-packaged piece that is either badly written or has a weak story at its centre (or both) will surely flop.

6. You can always control the goodness of your story by doing due diligence, but if you’re pitching your story to a publisher on the web, you’ve to pitch it to the right publisher. This is because those who do better on the web only do better by becoming a niche publication. If a publication wants to please everyone, it has to operate at a very large scale (>500 stories/day). On the other hand, a niche publication will have clearly identified its audience and will only serve that segment. Consequently, only some kinds of science stories – as identified by those niche publications’ preferences in science journalism – will be popular on the web. So know what editors are looking for.