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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Science reporting in India

According to Pew Research Center’s The State of the News Media 2008 report; in five hours of cable news in the US, the average coverage is the following for each topic: election campaigns - 35 minutes, US foreign policy - 36 minutes, crime - 26 minutes, healthcare - 3 minutes, and Science and technology - 1 minute. Across TV, radio and print, science news in the US has declined to 2% of the total since 9/11, from 4-6% from mid 1970s till 2001. (Source: Nature)

Though there are no comparable studies for India, it is beyond doubt that science and technology reporting is unwanted trash in the local media landscape, not just in terms of quantity but quality as well. In television, science reporting merely takes the form of showing astronaut Sunita Williams dancing in a space suit. But that is to be expected, given that the hundreds of news channels in India are at best providers of slapstick entertainment, giving most of their airtime to astrology predictions and shows by standup comedians or so called laughter champions.

And in the print media, science reporting is usually in the form of description of latest mobile phones, solutions to JEE papers, or small snippets on ‘never to be found again’ studies linking household spices to lower risk of some cancer or the other. Again, this is to be expected from India’s mainstream print media which runs on the principle of guessing what titillates its middle-class readership most. Why else would the editors of Times of India report in the front page the story of an IT worker killing his wife and then committing suicide? Even the somewhat serious magazine Frontline’s coverage on science is hardly objective, typically colored by display of excessive national pride or leftist opposition to everything, as can be seen in its recent report on India’s moon mission.

Lack of appropriate coverage of science and technology in the news not only makes the already superstitious general public more agnostic of science and rationality, but also lets go without public scrutiny, government decision making in this field. For example, there has been very almost no public debate around the utility of a $95 million moon mission. There is little public debate around how public institutions such as DRDO have failed to nurture a scientific ecosystem as the US DARPA has done, or why esteemed government colleges such as IIT remain in the C list of research institutions in the world.

Science reporting got a short term boost in India during 1995 when Ganesha idols supposedly drank milk for a day. What will give science reporting the next boost?

P.S. Please check out the following weekly programs that cover science in accessible language: BBC’s Science in Action, NPR’s Science Friday

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