Being a science journalist with dignity

Classes at NYU have started! On day one, Michael Balter, who is a senior correspondent for Science, kicked off the program with an introduction to interviewing by, simply enough, interviewing each one of us, having us introduce ourselves at the same time. I’m not sure about how much others were able to take away from it, but I couldn’t much until Michael told us that he was getting each one of us to say something interesting. And it was only in hindsight that his demonstration started to make sense to me.

After introductions, we got into discussing Michael’s classes, how they’d be structured, what we’d be expected to do and what goals we’d better have in mind. While they wore on, what struck me hardest was my great inexperience as a science writer. Despite having spent two years at The Hindu reporting on science as well as grappling with tools to take the subject to a bigger audience, all that I’d thought were problems that only accrued with time found mention in our classroom discussion on day one.

Maybe we’d take on these problems “in detail” in the coming months, but their quick acknowledgment was proof enough for me that I was in the right place and among the right people.

Participating in the discussion – led by Michael’s comments – finally gave me the sense of dignity in being a science journalist that I believe is not easy to acquire in India except, of course, together with being considered exotic. It was reassuring to be able to discuss my problems in detail, especially being able to pick on small, nagging issues. For example, stuff like “What do you do when a scientist you’ve spoken to asks to see the story before it is published?”

It seems the answer’s not always a simple “No”.

The class on Day 2, by Dan Fagin, was more introspective. Seemingly, it was the class that explored – and I suppose will continue to explore – the basics of journalism in detail; what a news story is, where story ideas come from, etc. – the class that will keep us thinking about what it is that we’re really doing and why we’re doing it. And just to make things more interesting – and obviously more educative – each one of us in the class was assigned a beat to cover for the semester, so chosen that they lay completely outside our respective comfort zones.

Taking my cue from Masterchef USA, where so many attempts to cook the personally uncookable had paid off and trying to play it safe with “just chicken” had backfired, I got myself assigned genetics, secure in the knowledge that:

  1. If I do screw up, I will screw up gloriously.
  2. If I end up being able to write about experimental physics and genetics with equal ease, I will also likely feel up for anything.

Toward the end, and just like on orientation day, Dan had another nugget of golden advice. He said that while writing his stories, he had in mind not his entire potential audience but one reader in particular – a fantasy reader: a man named Stan whom Dan knew, who wanted to know everything about the world but actually didn’t know anything. “Pick someone like that, and my advice is don’t pick your mother because she will like everything you write.”

At this point, although I would like to keep writing, I’m going to have to get started on my assignments. So I’m going to leave you with this quote from an amazing blog post by Paige Brown Jarreau I read on SciLogs the other day, to give you a sense of why I’m writing “NYUlab” in the first place.

So if you are a student, especially a student of mass communication or a student studying at the intersection of two different fields, I highly encourage you to blog. Use your blog to make connections between concepts in vastly different fields of study, or that seemingly occupy different parts of your brain. Tie your art classes to science communication. Tie your biology classes to your information theory classes. Tie your knowledge of human cognition to environmental and scientific issues. Don’t let anything you learn or read about go un-applied.

Over time, I’m hoping my experiences at NYU will pay off in much the same way, by becoming closely tied to different aspects of my life. Have a nice day!

3 responses to “Being a science journalist with dignity”

  1. This is great. I guess it can be applied to anyone who wants to become a journalist. I aspire to be one and I thought blogging my way through is the most feasible platform to do so.

    Good luck with your journalism path. Hope to hear more from you!


    • Blogging has done a lot for me, it’s a decision I’ve not come to regret for the amount of time and energy I’ve spent on it. In fact, having given up on many other pursuits midway, I think blogging paid off because I kept with it. You should give it a try. 🙂

  2. Some good advice there. Much of it is common sense but worth being reminded about to keep check. This is particularly intriguing: reading science fiction and philosophy of science.

    It’s interesting to note your comment about not being respected as much if you are a science journalist in India. I think that lack of respect is a sign of ignorance. Science journalism has different difficulties than other forms of journalism, and some may argue more than the usual too. What do you think?

    Writing does help you apply what you learn. And the substantial time that writing takes means you will automatically choose to work on only those things that would make the most difference to your learning. Keep the blogging going, as Paige says.