In conversation with Sree Srinivasan

May 5, 2020

On May 1, I was hosted on a webinar by the American journalist Sree Srinivasan, along with Anna Isaac of The News Minute and Arunabh Saikia of Scroll.in. As part of his daily show on the COVID-19 crisis, hosted by Scroll.in, Srinivasan hosts a few people working in different areas, and they all chat about what they’re doing and how they’re dealing with everything that’s going on for about an hour. However, our episode, the 50th of the series, was a double feature: the first 60 minutes was a conversation among us journalists, and for the next 50 minutes or so, Srinivasan had on Aseem Chhabra to discuss the lives and work of Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor, who had passed away a few days earlier. The full video is available to view here as well as is embedded below.

I also transcribed the portion of the video where I spoke for two reasons. First, because I’d like to remember what I said, and writing helps me do that. Second, I’m a lousy speaker because I constantly lose my train of thought, and often swallow words that I really should have spoken out loud, often rendering what I’m saying difficult to piece together. So by preparing a transcript, pasted below, I can both clarify what I meant in the video as well as remember what I thought, not just what I said.

How would you grade Indian journalism at the moment, in these last two months, in terms of coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The mainstream English press has been doing okay, I guess, but even then to paint it all with the same brush is very difficult because there are also very different stories to cover at a time like this. For example, many social and political issues are being covered well by specific publications. Some others are addressing different aspects of this.

In fact, if I had to pick out one aspect that I could say we’re not doing enough about is in terms of the science itself. The coronavirus outbreak is a crisis, and a large part of it is rooted in health issues, in scientific issues – much like climate change, antimicrobial resistance, etc. A lot of journalists are doing a good job of covering how this outbreak has impacted our society, our economy, etc. but there’s actually very little going into understanding how the virus really works or how epidemiologists or virologists do what they do.

One easy example is this business of testing kits. There’s a lot of controversy now about the serological tests that ICMR procured, probably at inflated prices, are not very accurate. The thing is, whenever you’re in a crisis like this and somebody’s rapidly developing kits – testing kits or ventilators or anything like that – there is always going to be a higher error rate.

Also, no test is 100% perfect. Every test is error-prone, including false positives and false negatives. But in this rush to make sure everything is covered, most of what is being elided – at least among organisations that are taking the trouble – is the science itself [of how tests are developed, why the errors are unavoidable, etc.]. That’s a significant blindspot.

But on the positive side of it, there is also a heightened awareness now of the need to understand how science works. We’ve been seeing this at The Wire, I don’t know if it applies to other organisations: there is a sort of demand… the engagement with science stories has increased. We’re using this opportunity to push out these stories, but the thing is we’re also hoping that once this pandemic ends and the crisis passes, this appreciation for science will continue, especially among journalists.

Apart from this, I don’t want to attempt any grading.

What is your reaction to the value of data journalism at this time?

The value of charts has been great, and there are lots of charts out there right now, projecting or contrasting different data-points. Just a few days ago we published a piece with something like 60 charts discussing the different rates of testing and positivity in all of India’s states.

But the problem with these charts – and there is a problem, that needs to be acknowledged – is that they tend to focus the conversation on the data itself. The issue with that is that they miss ground realities. [I’m not accusing the charts of stealing the attention so much as giving the impression, or supporting the takeaway, that the numbers being shown are all that matter.]

While data journalism is very important, especially in terms of bringing sense to the lots of numbers floating about, [it also feeds problematic narratives about how numbers are all that matter.] I recently watched this short clip on Twitter in which a bunch of people were crowded at a quarantine centre in Allahabad fighting for food. There was very little food available and I think they were daily-wage labourers. I think there is a lot being said about the value and virtues of data journalism and visualisations but I don’t think there is much being said at all – but definitely needs to be – about how data can’t ever describe the full picture.

Especially in India, and we’ve seen this recently with the implementation of the Aadhaar programme as well: even if your success rate with something is as high as 99%, 1% of India’s population is still millions of people [and it’s no coincidence that they already belong to the margins of society.] And this is something I’ve thus far not seen data stories capture. Numbers are good to address the big picture but they’ve been effectively counterproductive during this crisis in terms of distracting from the ground stories. [So even the best charts can only become the best stories if they’re complemented with some reporting.]

The Wire compiled a list of books to read during the lockdown, with recommendations by its staff. You recommended Dune by Frank Herbert. Why?

Dune to me was an obvious choice for [three] reasons. One is that Dune is set on a planet where you already see life in extremes, especially with the tribe of the Fremen, who play an important role in the plot. What really stayed with me about that book was its sort of mystic environmentalism, about how humans and nature are connected. The book explores this in a long-winded way, but that’s something we’ve seen a lot of these days in terms of zoonoses – [pathogens] that jump from animals to humans.

There’s also a lot of chatter these days about killing bats because they host coronaviruses. But all of that is rubbish. Humans are very deeply responsible for this crisis we’ve brought on ourselves in many ways.

This also alludes to what Anna Isaac mentioned earlier: what do you mean by normal? Yes, life probably will return to normal in India’s green zones next week, but the thing is, once this crisis ends, there’s still climate change, antimicrobial resistance and environmental degradation awaiting us that will bring on more epidemics and pandemics. Ecologists who have written for us have discussed this concept called ‘One Health’, where you don’t just discuss your health in terms of your body or your immediate environment but also in terms of your wider environment – at the ecosystem level.

Dune I think is a really good example of sci-fi that captures such an idea. And Dune is also special because it’s sci-fi, which helps us escape from our reality better, because sci-fi is both like and unlike.

The third reason it’s special is because the movie adaptation is coming out later this year, so it’s good to be ready. 😀

[When asked for closing remarks…]

When I started out being a journalist, I was quite pissed off that there wasn’t much going on in terms of the science coverage in India. So my favourite stories to write in the last eight years I’ve been a journalist have been about making a strong point about a lot of knowledge being out there in the world that seems like it’s not of immediate benefit or use [but is knowledge – and therefore worth knowing – nonetheless]. That’s how I started off being a science journalist.

My forte is writing about high-energy physics and astrophysics. Those are the stories I’ve really enjoyed covering and that’s the sort of thing that’s also lacking at the moment in the Indian journalism landscape – and that’s also the sort of coverage of science news we wanted to bring into the pandemic.

Here, I should mention that The Wire is trying to build what we hope will be the country’s first fully reader-funded, independent science news website. We launched it in February. We really want to put something together like the Scientific American of India. You can support that by donating at thewire.in/support. This is really a plea to support us to go after stories that we haven’t seen many others cover in India at the moment.

Right now, most stories are about the coronavirus outbreak but as we go ahead, we’d like to focus more and more on two areas: science/society and pure research, stuff that we’re finding out but not talking about probably because we think it’s of no use to us [but really that’s true only because we haven’t zoomed out enough].

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