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Cold calculations

india Updated: Sep 27, 2009 01:44 IST
Sumana Ramanan

Sumana Ramanan,
Senior Editor

Some readers appreciated recent stories in HT about science and scientific institutions. But will sustained coverage of science find many takers? How much time, space and energy should general-interest newspapers devote to covering scientific developments and institutions?

While making decisions about deploying resources to cover science, a newspaper must take into account certain external realities. Unlike civic issues, political matters or the state of the economy, most scientific developments appear to have very little immediate bearing on readers’ lives. Science also perhaps does not lend itself to the kind of quick excitement that sports and show business might.

As a result, most readers tend to view news about science as neither utilitarian nor entertaining. This is especially true in Mumbai, a city driven by utilitarianism and entertainment. To most non-practitioners, science appears fascinating from a distance but becomes intimidating from up close.

Newspapers face internal constraints as well. Science journalism is hard to do well. It calls for understanding very specialised topics and rendering them intelligible to the lay reader without oversimplifying them. As a result, the little that gets covered by way of science are the more dramatic events that lend themselves to visual depiction such as satellite launches or issues that are more relevant to people’s daily lives such as climate change.

Given these challenges, should newspapers even bother trying to write about more fundamental developments in science?

My feeling is that despite the challenges and however imperfect the coverage, newspapers should try, for at least two concrete reasons.

First, much of fundamental science in our country gets done in institutions ultimately funded by taxpayers. Should they not know what is being done with their money? Second, news about top-class science being done in our country can be inspiring, not only to those in related fields but to many others, because it proves that we are capable of achieving excellence.

What do readers think of the story on our front page today about how scientists are ready to re-create the Big Bang in the laboratory? Do you find it esoteric or exciting? Do you want more such news?

Taking the sting out of an issue

Over time, readers have been suggesting that HT undertake sting operations to uncover wrongdoing.

This time, I will not go into the pros and cons of stings, but merely state what HT’s policy is: we do not do stings. We do not even allow our journalists to go under cover or impersonate someone else in order to extract information, even when confronted with the most persistent stonewalling.

There is, of course, a distinction between a sting and going under cover. In a sting operation, one concocts a situation in order to elicit a response from a specific person or people.

Going under cover merely means not revealing one’s identity as a journalist; it does not necessarily entail cooking up the story.