Man could well have originated science communication with the early discoveries, the most important being the discovery of fire and dissemination of its knowledge. In India, sage Atharvan is credited for the discovery of fire churning technology and its dissemination during ancient period. A whole host of scientific literature was created in India during ancient, Vedic, post Vedic and classical periods. Medieval period saw emergence of newer trends in science communication when commentaries on earlier scientific texts were written and structures like Jantar Mantar (observatory) were built, but these were accessible to a few elites in the society. The real shift in science communication in favour of the common man became evident in modem times when it was now possible to bring out publications in large numbers. Science journalism started in India in 1818 with the publication of monthly Digdarshan published in Hindi, Bengali and English, carrying a few articles on science and technology. Science communication proliferated in independent India. This paper discusses the trends now emerging in India given the efforts, the slackness in quality and moves to improve it, the plurality of mass media, and a sound science and technology base of the country; arrived at through an in-depth study intended at furthering the cause of science communication and scientific attitude. The study indicates that science coverage attributed to mass media is abysmally poor, i.e. around 3 percent, which is far below the desired level of 10-15 percent. The present work is an attempt to find out the extent of demand and supply of S&T coverage in various mass media and presenting an emerging scenario of science and technology journalism in the country.
Science journalism is the key to the real treasure of the scientific knowledge, by virtue of which scientific knowledge and concepts could be carried to the common man. Thus the common man is benefited with the new advancements in science and technology and is able to fight against hunger, drought, diseases, and social evils, like superstitions, etc., with self-confidence, courage and faith. Being aware of this fact, science journalism in India has yet to come out of its present stage of infancy.
Undoubtedly, science and technology journalism has progressively developed in India, in terms of quality and quantity, but still there are many miles to go to achieve the desired level. Science journalism, during its almost two century long journey thence has crossed several milestones. There has been a considerable progress in science journalism over the years and as a result several science magazines, feature services, programmes on radio and television, etc, emerged, despite the fact that they came into existence much later. The plight of science journalism in India may not be too deplorable at the moment, however, a good deal still remains to be done in this field.
During early days, there was no science communication or journalism, as such. But as we understand it today, the technology, science and communication existed from the very beginning. There had been a number of turning points during the cultural evolution of man in Indian subcontinent, from where we can mark the beginning of science communication, but it is very difficult to pin point a single incident being origin of science communication in the country. The earliest origin point of science communication can be marked, when early man had made primitive stone tools and disseminated them, some time during 1,50,000 years ago or earlier in the Shivalik region of the subcontinent. Then came the use and control of fire and dissemination of fire kindling technology. Preparation of cave sketches/ drawings was the next step. Cro-Magnon man lived in the Indian sub-continent, who prepared cave sketches, did experiments and prepared records some 40,000 years ago (Exhibition on History of Science and Technology in India, 1998, NCSTC). These can be considered as the early modes of science dissemination.
Sage Atharvan did the invention of fire churning technology in India and the technology was disseminated throughout the known areas of human population just like a jungle fire. The fire churners were in great demand at that time and everybody was keen to have the information on fire churning technology. Sage Atharvan’s pupils, including families, were the resource persons for information on fire churning technology (Satyaprakash, 1967). The communication of the technology of producing fire during early days can be correlated to the beginning of the rudiments of science communication. The evolutionary trends of science communication could be worked out through the minute observation of the evolution of man and civilization. As the civilization progressed, new modes of communication emerged, which were adopted for disseminating scientific information from time to time.
The early man might have communicated with each other through body language. Subsequently, oral language, phonetic and written language evolved, which were followed by well-developed Prakrat language and then various regional languages found their ways to flourish. Indus valley civilization flourished in Indian subcontinent, besides its well-developed Indus script. Agricultural communication started through public relations around 10000 years ago, when man started exchanging information about various agricultural practices, like sowing, irrigation and harvesting, etc.
India has a rich tradition of communication, especially when it comes to masses. Folk arts, like Nautanki, Ramlila, folk songs and folk dances are immensely effective as the means of mass communication. India has a great tradition and a treasure of scientific heritage. During Vedic, post Vedic and classical periods, a whole host of ancient scientific literature was created, although such information was not available to the public, and was limited to most privileged class only. The medieval period has been important for the preparation of a large number of commentaries on earlier and contemporary scientific works. This can be considered a great milestone on the road to communication, as the information about most of the ancient and classical works mainly reaches us only through these commentaries.
The scientific temper has always been in India, in the form of logic, reasoning and method of acquiring knowledge, throughout the cultural evolution of man. The science communication in its real term had begun with publication of a scientific journal, Asiatick Researches, quarterly from the Asiatick Society, Calcutta in 1788. Thereafter, the science communication in India has evolved in many facets. Following this, there has been a continuing development in the formation of scientific institutions and publication of scientific literature. Subsequently, scientific publications also started appearing in Indian languages by the end of eighteenth century. The publication of ancient scientific literature and textbooks at mass scale started in the beginning of nineteenth century. The scientific and technical terms, however, had been a great difficulty for a long time for popular science writing.
The beginnings of science journalism in Indian languages could be traced back to the articles published in the monthly Digdarshan from Srirampur (Hooghly), West Bengal in April 1888 in Hindi, Bengali and English. These articles dealt with topics like flying in a balloon, steam boat, etc. Other newspapers also started giving scientific information. Science communication activities could not develop sufficiently during nineteenth century; however, a number of publications were brought out in different Indian languages and on various scientific subjects. The science communication was mainly limited to publication of books and scientific journals, except a few popular science articles on latest developments.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, new trends emerged. Science congresses, scientific and industrial exhibitions, seminars, industrial and technological museums, public lectures, popular science magazines, etc. were few among the newer developments towards science communication. But the pace of these activities remained low and no significant effort was done to popularise science among the people and inculcate a scientific temper amongst them. The same pattern more or less continued till independence.
After Independence, science popularization was being taken up at various levels. The Scientific Policy Resolution of March 4, 1958 has been a guiding factor for development of science and technology in the country. It was the first Prime Minister of India, Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru, who gave an impetus to scientific pursuits and development of scientific outlook. The independent India witnessed a rapid growth in the efforts of science communication and popularization. With a view to integrate, coordinate, catalyse and support the efforts of science communication and science popularization in the country, the Government of India established the National Council for Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC) in 1982 as an apex body, which puts more concerted efforts in this direction.
A number of programmes and activities have started in public and private sectors to spread scientific knowledge and scientific outlook among masses, especially in vernaculars, but science journalism in its real form could not evolve and remained an inner page affair for the media, except a few occasions, such as Apollo Expedition (1969), Total Solar Eclipse (1995), Ganesh Drinking Milk (1995), and Nuclear Tests (1998), etc. Following are some of the dimensions of the state of science journalism in India:
1. Science Journalism and Mass Media
We have been using various means and modes for science journalism/ communication, as follows:
- Print Media: Such as newspapers, magazines, wallpapers, books, posters, folders, booklets.
- Audio/Visual Media: Mainly radio and TV, besides, films, slide shows, bioscope.
- Folk Media: It has been a common observation, that through folk media, it is possible to achieve penetration to the segments where other media have limitations. Puppet shows, street plays skits, stage performances, folk songs and folk dances, nautanki and other traditional means of communication belong to this category. This media is cost effective, entertaining and offers two-way communication.
- Interactive Media: Science exhibitions, science fairs, seminars, workshops, lectures, scientific tours, conferences, vigyan jathas, etc. The advantage here being man-to-man and two-way communication.
- Digital Media: information technology has given birth to comparatively a new media, known as digital media. It includes Internet, CD-ROM, multimedia, simulations, etc. It has also made science communication simpler to handicapped segments of the society.
That apart, we are popularizing science through our 18 regional languages, to penetrate into local populace effectively. Selection of target audience has greatest significance. Our science communication efforts are aimed at various target groups, such as, common man, children, students, farmers, women, workers or specialists, etc. Various forms for presentation are being used to making science communication more interesting and enjoyable, such as science news, report, article, feature, story, play, poem, interview, discussion, lecture, documentary, docu-drama, scientoon (science +cartoon), satire, etc.
Today there are popular science magazines in almost every Indian language, barring a few. Science programmes appear on radio and TV. Online popular science magazines, science news on Teletext, ready-to-print science page are some of the new developments in the area of science journalism.
The use of broadcast and digital media has opened new vistas of science journalism. The revolution in information technology has made possible to get scientific information from around the globe within seconds, on our fingertips. More concerted, coordinated and integrated efforts have started to cater to large and all cross-sections of the society.
2. Trends in Science Writing/ Reporting
Science articles published in the newspapers/ magazines today are not too different from what they used to be years ago, i.e. with prosaic style, technical jargon and excess of avoidable statistics. Obviously, complicated and uninteresting articles lacking in liveliness, lucidity and without a continuous flow cannot be expected to attract a large readership. Occasionally, the articles are immersing from the point of view of subject matter but lacking in presentation. Due to phenomenal technical advances and narrow specialization in various fields today both authors and editors alike, find themselves at bay while dealing with a particular scientific/ technical topic. The articles in Indian languages often are mere translations of the original English ones. It is necessary to encourage original science writing in Indian languages.
Then, how should a science article be like! ? In the age of technological advancement today, most people prefer article which are informative, analytical, critical and having a continuous flow. To write an article on a particular topic, one needs to read and understand the available literature and discuss the topic with concerned experts and incorporate their suggestions. Necessary statistics, diagrams, photographs, etc. also need to be collected. It is necessary to bear in mind that an integrated and balanced view of the topic/ issue needs to be presented along with a proper analysis in a language easily intelligible to the common public. An article must necessarily reflect alertness and the investigative bent of mind of the reporter. Undoubtedly, even the laymen appreciate such articles and reports. Needless to say, the titles and sub-titles need to be interesting and eye catching – nobody likes dry and unattractive titles.
Sharma K (1993) has commented on popular Hindi science magazines – “most of the popular science magazines are depending upon translations that creates a lot of distortion in the presentation.” He also rightly commented on science writers- “they tend to prepare a story or a report only sitting inside the room, without going outside or interacting with scientists, who are associated with the story, or covering on-the-spot events.”
Not only in print, but in broadcast media also, the misleading scientific information, a continuous decay of creativity in presentation, distortion in translation, inconsistency in organizing the contents, lapses in the use of language, and many more deviations can be seen frequently.
Singh (1993) contends – “that popular science writing in India is still shackled by complacency and over dependence on foreign sources, they are unfortunately used for plagiarism”.
Very often, it has been seen that a writer uses the popular article of another writer as a source for his writing and subsequently a third writer is using his article and a chain of substandard articles is formed, without consulting the primary source. Thus a series of such distorted communications appear in the media, as if it were original science writing. In case of translations, other writers generally misinterpret the technical terms, especially in their subsequent versions.
Usage of technical terms could occasionally give rise to difficulties, and hence it is advisable to select and explain explicitly various terms used. For example, in an article published in a Hindi newspaper, “Satellite DNA” was referred to as “Upagraha DNA”, where it should have read “Vahak DNA”. Usage of improper technical terms would hence need to be given due attention by the science journalists. Terminologies on all technical subjects in regional languages are available today, however, the usage of a particular term would require the proper judgement and discretion on the part of the author or the editor.
Science dissemination is not limited to newspapers and magazines alone. We have a host of publications on scientific topics that include science books at popular levels, feature services, encyclopaedias, reference books, monographs, technical reports, special reports, souvenirs, annual reports and more. A common thread that needs to run through all these different types is the authenticity and simplicity and at the same time, a presentation that is acceptable and readable.
Nav Bharat Times, a leading Hindi daily, started a science column in the year 1948. Today, unfortunately, in most of the dailies, weeklies and monthlies, we do not see much coverage of science and technology. It is desirable and imperative to introduce science columns in newspapers/ magazines. A few newspapers, however, cover science/ technology news and also have introduced regular science columns. But, in a country like ours, where not many people are exposed to the basic principles of science and technology, this, by itself, is not sufficient. Rarely, a science editor or a science reporter is associated with a newspaper or a magazine. It is desirable to have science correspondents with all newspapers. This would, in due course, help evolve a policy on editing and reporting of contemporary topics on science and technology in different modes of presentation in the media.
One of the reasons for the science reporting to have remained underdeveloped in our country may be due to the fact that except for a few dry and drab articles, technical information/ news, and hardly any other modes of science writing were employed. May be this is why common man could not come to terms with science and technology. If science were presented in the form of stories, poems, etc, common man not only would be able to read, but, also would understand and appreciate science. Poetry is a powerful medium for communication, which could be used for communicating science to children and neo-literates. Explaining science in the form of poetry is not as difficult as it may seem. Science dramas and skits are also under utilized. Only rarely one comes across science drama and skit in print medium.
Upcoming science writers need to give a try to communicating science through these unconventional modes. Humour and satire are other areas still untreated in science reporting. In fact, these modes have not been exploited in science communication at all! Newspapers/ magazines do publish debates on political and social issues, but rarely a science reporter or an editor has shown interest in publishing debates on any scientific issue. Today, there exist several possibilities of publishing debates on a current issues based on interviews with scientists and articles based on the same. Apparently, the readers show a keen interest in scientific topics if presented in such an exciting manner. The use of the various modes in science reporting would not only generate an interest in science but would also inculcate scientific attitude into them.
4. Reporting on Local Issues of Scientific Importance
Often, local scientific/ technological issues do not find a place in mass media at state or national levels. It is worth noting that there has been considerable success in addressing local issues/ problems/ technologies through local/ regional level science journalism, which could even help in adopting/ transferring traditional technologies/ processes prevalent in one part of the country to other parts. A few examples are noteworthy. In a workshop on science writing/ journalism at Rampur, U.P., a group of participants discovered during the course of preparation of their story as an exercise of on the spot reporting that untreated effluents from Kashipur and nearby industries were being discharged in the Kosi river. Animals died as a result of drinking the polluted water of the river. Even trees and plants did not survive. Moreover, the ingress of polluted river water in the wells of the nearby 60 villages rendered the water undrinkable. This group of reporters made a thorough investigation of this problem during the course of the workshop. Specimens of polluted water were collected and analysed. When the reports appeared in media, the authorities were alarmed and forced to take a number of steps at different levels to solve the problem. This is how such local level science journalists can help bring to the fore the local issues/ problems and help address/ solve the same.
Here is yet another example. During the course of a workshop in Himachal Pradesh, a group of writers/ journalists came across a traditional technique for storage of water (Khatriyan in the local language). Often, tanks for storing rainwater are constructed under the houses, sometimes in an open area. Rainwater collected from the roofs of the houses is collected through pipes in these tanks. In case it snows in the area, after the snowfall, the water gets collected when the snow melts. This stored water is used for doing a variety of jobs for the whole year. This technique was being used in the past in some other parts of the country as well and it still could be used. Surely, such traditional technologies existed/ are existing in different parts of the country. As a matter of fact, indigenous techniques/ technologies were develop/ are developed depending on need arising from time to time, or were modified/ improved upon for better efficiency and utility. The practitioners in science journalism could report on these aspects as well.
5. Investigative Science Journalism
The scientific writing in our country today is chiefly limited to describing various aspects of a particular topic, either in a descriptive manner or in praise of it. A large number of our science writers and scientific journals are from the pubic sector and hence it is difficult to expect them to be analytical or self-critical. Further most of the R&D in our country is being carried out in government laboratories and there is hardly any means for the common people to know what scientists are doing. To bring public awareness in our country in the field of research, there is a need for investigative journalism in this field. Whatever is happening in this field, good or bad, proper or improper must be brought before the people, only then science journalism in our country would flourish in its complete form.
Science journalism in India is nearly devoid of any investigative journalism. This form of journalism is attractive in its own way and retains readers’ interest in the article to read further. Normally, a journalist publishes an article after a thorough investigation on political, social, or an economic issue. This aspect, however, is largely absent in the case of scientific topics. Perhaps, scientific issues are considered as being free of any human weaknesses, or not important enough to deserve investigative reporting!
The various forms of science journalism become clear only when aspects like proper or improper uses of science and technology and good or bad impact of the same on society are brought to the fore. Science reporting then will develop into a form of an alert guard and adviser, say, the case of introduction of new technology, genetically modified food, CNG fuel, and so on. This could become possible only when an enthusiastic science journalist/ reporter takes science journalism as a profession. Such reporters could visit a scientific laboratory and interact with scientists in order to know the current scientific research and developmental work going on and bring it to the people. It is necessary to realize that investigative journalism does not imply investigation of any irregularity alone in a laboratory/ organization, but brining to the people those useful technologies also still not known far and wide.
6. Science Journalism and Scientific Literacy
Scientific literacy is necessary for the economic and healthy well being of the social fabric and every person, and for the exercise of participatory democracy. It also implies the ability to respond to the technical issues that pervade and influence our daily lives. It does not mean detailed knowledge of scientific principles, phenomena or technologies, however, it rather points out to the comprehension of what might be called the scientific approach, or the scientific way of conduct or the method of science. Science journalism keeps people aware about the latest in the field of research and development and helps them lead a life with better knowledge and understanding of newer advancements. The last two decades have been characterized by the rapid development of new scientific and technological advancements across a wide range of fields. Access to these advancements is distributed unevenly within the country. Even people in far-flung areas often lack access to not only traditional but also modern scientific knowledge. Effective localized science journalism can help enhance public awareness about science and technology confronting their day-to-day lives.
7. Creating the Creators
In order to develop trained manpower in the area of science journalism/ writing/ communication, training/ educational programmes are being offered at various levels in our country: i) Short term courses, which are of 3 to 7 day’s duration; the participants are science activists and enthusiasts, whether students of science at higher level or not; ii) Medium term courses, which are of two to four month’s duration; usually for those who wants to improve their science communication skills; and iii) Long term courses, which are of 1 to 2 year’s duration; run at different universities/institutions and offer post graduate degrees or diplomas in science communication. Besides, a correspondence course in science journalism of one-year duration is also available.
As part of short-term courses, 3-5 days’ training-cum-orientation workshops of local/ regional writers, journalists, illustrators are organized and they are exposed to various techniques of science writing, reporting, and illustrations. The idea behind this programme is to develop grass root science writers/ journalists who can eventually write on local issues of scientific importance with the help of locally available resources/ experts for the local/ regional level mass media. This is our way to enhancing science coverage in local/ regional press. Some 200 such workshops have been organized so far and our target is to have similar programmes at all the 500 districts. Through the implementation of this idea, a number of skilled science writers and journalists are coming to the fore from different regional languages. At some places, these grass root science writers have formed Regional Science Writers’ Associations as chapters of the Indian Science Writers’ Association (ISWA).
In spite of a number of efforts for developing science journalism in India, there are certain challenges before us, to be met. Some of them are listed below:
a) As an average, the science coverage in India is around 3%, which we intend to enhance up to 15%, as per a resolution of Indian Science Writers’ Association.
b) The number of capable science journalists/ writers and popular science magazines is alarmingly low and hardly sufficient to cater to the large target audience.
c) The science has still not succeeded in attracting the media to the extent that it could appear on the front page or become a lead story, like the politics, films or sports. Mass media has its commercial compulsions, which superimpose all the science communication efforts and leave a negative impact in the minds of the audiences. Instead of including scientific information, they prefer to generate more revenue by including non-scientific, meta-scientific or occult information, etc.
d) It is rather disappointing to note that leading science magazines have ceased their publication, like Science Today, Science Age, Bulletin of Sciences, Research and Industry, etc. and Indian editions of foreign science magazines, like Vigyan (Scientific American), World Scientist (La Recherche), etc. could not survive, however, recently Indian edition of Popular Science has been started from New Delhi.
e) India has 18 recognized regional languages. Science writing in many languages is yet another great challenge, as scientific information is generally available in English. The quality of scientific translation could not achieve the level of excellence.
f) The science writing is still dry and boring, and interesting styles of writing, like fiction, poetry, satires, skits, discussions, etc. have not found adequate space and time in the media. Even most of the science writers could not contribute sufficiently such an interesting science material. Merely occasional appearance of something in the name of science fiction cannot serve the purpose.
g) Misleading scientific information, a continuous decay of creativity in presentation, distortion in translation, inconsistency in organizing the contents, lapses in the use of language, and many more deviations can be seen on media frequently.
h) There has been emerging conflict between scientists and journalists, which is a great impediment towards the progress of science journalism in India. This can be resolved by way of organizing scientists-journalists meets on regular basis.
i) As far as science writing and science journalism are concerned, there is ample scope for furthering such efforts in developing countries, especially in South Asian Region. A common science and technology news and features pool can be formed to facilitate writers/ journalists to get/ exchange information on scientific research.
j) There is a great shortage of properly trained science writers, journalists, communicators, illustrators in various parts of the world, though, a number of training programmes are conducted at various places. Therefore, more training programmes are needed, which may preferably be conducted to give more opportunity to developing countries.
k) Popular science writing in India is still shackled by complacency and over dependence on foreign sources. It is very difficult to get information from a scientific laboratory. The scientists in some organizations are not allowed to talk to the media about the research being carried out by them or in their laboratory. This requires a science media centre, including a centralized website to facilitate media persons to get research reports well in time.
l) All India Radio has started science news based on the research papers appearing in Indian research journals. Print media can follow similar practice as well.
m) Following the industrial revolution in the western countries, the level of science coverage in mass media was exponentially increased. As such, India is passing through the same stage, in the present time. As the technology advances, the need of scientific information would also increase. Accordingly, the industrial India would soon witness the high time of science journalism, but the scientific community, media persons and public have to be vigilant enough to harness this opportunity.
n) Generally, science journalism is misunderstood merely as communication of data; it must go beyond data. The logical and rational interpretation must come up to the fore, enabling the target audiences to shape their lives, ideas and thinking, as well.
o) There is a need of debates in mass media on emerging issues of science and technology which are relevant to the people and are of their immediate concern to enable them to take informed decisions to lead their life in a democratic society.
Though, challenges are many, we could see some rays of hope, as India has been able to take initiatives in a number of newer programmes in the area of science communication, such as, Vigyan Jatha, Children’s Science Congress, and Scientific Explanation of So-called miracles, etc., which were not tried out elsewhere and can take lead in these innovative areas of science communication to better serve the mankind.
In order to identify and evaluate the present status of science journalism in India, various parameters were used. On the basis of a survey conducted, some interesting inferences were drawn. Near about 12.66% respondents were interested in science and technology coverage. This inference seems to be exactly in conformity with the desired level (10-15%) of science coverage in the country. While looking at the demand and supply analysis, the demand seems to be very less in some cases. This however, is a false situation limited by the necessary expansion, which may leap many times in near future.
Science certainly does not fare well when we talk of readers’ interest but it is also true that we need to work in the direction of making science interesting. A lot more creativity is required in the field of science writing and journalism; perhaps this is what we lack at the moment. Science fiction has achieved the status of best sellers in the west, whereas we hardly have anything significant of this type of science writing. Low interest in sciences can be traced to another reason that we are not prioritising two important segments of our readers, the students and the farmers, in the manner that is of interest to them. There is reasonable interest in the folk media, especially in the rural areas and this media does not find enough attention vis-à-vis science journalism.
It is time to recognize the shift in target population’s interest, i.e. towards television, and science programmes should be created in enough number through formats, which are most attractive to them. It may not be incorrect to say that docu-drama would be the most sought after format of science communication through television. When, India is passing through a crucial turning point of its development, we must take emerging trends into our stride and redraw our policies and plans, to be a nation of scientifically thinking and scientifically informed people. Hence, the efforts directed towards enhancing science coverage in mass media through effective and creative science journalism need to be given more priority. This is an issue, which scientists, media persons and the public have to take seriously and other side of the coin needs to be focussed now.
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This article is based on a presentation given at the first JourNet international conference on Professional Education for the Media, Newcastle, Australia, 16-20 February 2004.
National Council for Science & Technology Communication (NCSTC):
Technology Bhavan, New Mehrauli Road, New Delhi – 110016 (India)
Indian Science Writers’ Association (ISWA): 25/3, Sector – I, Pushp Vihar, Saket, New Delhi – 110017 (India)