The missing genre
At first, it is easy to miss. With the glamour of covering the immediate, and the glory of living in the instant, it is hard to notice. But pay close attention to the news and the talk shows and you will realise that there is a hole that ought not to be there. In the ever shrinking space of magazines, it is also a glaring omission. In daily newspapers, it is nowhere to be found. When it comes to covering science and technology, the media as a whole, in electronic formats as in print, has agreed that it is somehow not in the best interests of the viewer (or reader). Perhaps, more importantly, the decision is that it is not in the best interest of the media house.
Science journalism, just like other fertile areas of the field, has had a rich history in covering stories of global importance and has made substantial contributions in creating public awareness about issues that affect public imagination, well-being and even national security. Science journalism has also been a robust and reliable way to connect the general public, many without a background in science, to areas that invariably affect them. Whether it is the human space endeavours, the floods and the environment, or the challenges in managing Ebola, science journalists have shaped public opinion and have served society. In a world obsessed with politics, or worse, with politicians, the ‘market’ demand for science journalism is negligible. Over the last several years, I have met or interacted with dozens of journalists and reporters in Pakistan, but not one of them has been a science journalist. While I recognise that my own network of journalist friends may be small, what is perhaps more alarming is that even they cannot think of a journalist interested in rigorous science journalism.
Pakistan has, and continues to produce, journalists who are outstanding in every respect. Whether it is sports or international affairs, domestic policy or investigative journalism, there has never been a shortage of quality journalists. So why not in science? The first argument given by my friends and colleagues is the lack of market demand. This may be true, but only partly. Science journalism is far from boring facts and numbers, or stating the obvious. It is about telling a compelling story, with the same standard of engagement, rigour and analysis, as with a juicy piece of investigative journalism. In a society where nearly every parent wants their son or daughter to become a doctor or an engineer, it is hard to believe that the appetite for rich stories in science is non-existent.
The second argument given by my colleagues is about lack of scientific culture in the country. Once again, this argument is true only in part. Indeed, we are not the scientific engine of the world, but science journalism is not just about research in the country, it is also about public engagement in issues of health, environment, technology and countless other disciplines that affect us all on a daily basis. Wouldn’t it be nice for a real science journalist to tell a story about Ebola rather than those who did for our TV channels, and embarrassingly got even the very basic facts wrong?
The third argument given by colleagues, which is probably the weakest one, is that any time there is big news in science, it is given coverage. First, this is not always true. Second, when the news is covered, it is hardly reported by anyone who has any interest, experience or background in science and is covered without any element of relevance and often with glaring omissions and substantial weaknesses. Journalists in Pakistan, who seek truth and desire to share those truths, have contributed a lot to transparency and accountability in the recent past and they need to be acknowledged and lauded for their efforts. But search for new and exciting stories need not be limited to the corridors of power. There are profound stories, developing every day, that need to be told and shared. Our imagination and our lives are poorer for not knowing about them.