Bhavya Khullar is a science journalist based in Delhi. She talks about how to find a story, approach an editor and build a career.
What skills and knowledge do science journalists need?
A science journalist needs all the skills and knowledge that a conventional journalist does, along with a strong interest in science.
A journalist is required to communicate and write well, research, think and analyse independently, respect deadlines, assist colleagues, talk to experts, generate new ideas, find potential stories and develop them, and interact with and respond to readers on social media.
I work at the Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based think tank that does science policy research and advocacy. Last month, I talked to government officials about a story on genetically modified foods in India, assisted my colleagues in writing the press briefings and policy letters, disseminated the story on social media and responded to my readers' queries. Now I am working on follow-up stories based on responses from policy makers and my readers.
How do you recognise a good science story?
I look for three things in a story:
Would it be interesting or useful to me if I were a reader?
Do I, as a journalist, have the resources to complete this story? Here, I take into account the travel budget, my knowledge and experience of the subject, my contacts for expertise and quotes, and any additional requirements. Those could be interpreters, translators, photographers, visas, camera personnel or illustrators.
Who would I pitch this story to? For this, I think of the editors and magazines who would be willing to publish this story after I write it.
If it is interesting, useful and do-able, and is approved by the editor, I plan a structure and start working on it.
How do you approach editors with a story?
Through an email. The body has to be short and to the point. After introducing myself in two or three lines, I jump straight to the story idea. I tell them how I want to approach it, and ask them if they would be interested in publishing the story.
Most editors reply within a week or two. If they accept the story, they tell me their requirements and give me a deadline. If they are not interested, I pitch it to another outlet.
Journalists should choose the right platform for a story. An article on the conservation of birds, for example, is more likely to be accepted by a magazine that publishes similar stories than a magazine that focuses on health. Unless, of course, the story has to do with both bird conservation and health.
In my experience, email conversations work better than phone calls or personal meetings. But, since editors are busy, journalists should not spam them with irrelevant emails.
How is journalism different from many other professions?
My friends find it amusing that as a journalist, I spend more hours away from my desk than at my desk. I travel to places that they haven't heard of. They get annoyed sometimes when we are traveling together and I stop to take photographs of a polluted area, or talk to strangers to ask what is happening to them.
I am always looking for stories. A tourist in Thailand might enjoy the beach, elephant safari, or seafood. In the same settings, I would be thinking of stories on plastic waste remediation, wildlife regulations, how seafood is being handled or preserved, and spending time on Google to know if these ideas have already been published elsewhere.
I dress casually and comfortably in my office, which surprises those who have to wear formal clothes.
What can you tell us about science journalism in India?
Minutes after your story goes live, it can become viral. People email to seek clarification and connections, journalists gain followers or trolls on Twitter. In other words, a journalist can't relax after a story is published.
Science journalists in India have plenty of topics to choose from. We are a large, diverse and populous country with a number of issues pertaining to health, the environment, technology, research, ethics, and policy, to name a few. So, a science journalist never falls short of ideas. This also gives science journalists in India the opportunity to experiment with stories and style of writing. We also have a lot of options for communication, including digital, print, podcast, photography and videography.
Science communication in India is in a blooming phase. There are new science communication competitions for scholars, a 24-hour science news channel went live this month, and many institutes are emerging with informative newsletters, podcasts, and web pages. Scientists are engaging with the public through lectures in regional languages, science cafés and science slams. Editors are more open to working with new writers and photographers.
Are there any challenges particular to women in your profession?
All my editors, mentors, and colleagues have been very supportive and encouraging. I have had my share of genuine and positive criticism too.
But at times, I have faced difficulty in completing stories that required me to travel to remote villages, or at certain times of the day. I have to be careful of who I talk to, and who I share my details with. Sometimes I have shared my number with people for a story, but they messaged or called me for conversations that were unrelated to my work.
It is a bit more challenging to choose clothes that are appropriate for a setting. I would wear a saree for a conference but would avoid it when visiting a national park. If I visit a small town in a remote village in India, I wear regional attire because it helps me to connect with the local people.
I do strongly believe that whatever your profession, there will be challenges that you can eventually solve if you are driven and motivated.
How did you get from your first science article to your current job?
When I started writing science stories, I did it for free and without a byline. For many of my colleagues, this was unacceptable. But I knew I was learning and growing, so I kept doing that.
When I was 29, I interned for a small salary, which my family and friends thought was not required as I could get a better-paid job without the internship. I do not encourage unpaid internships.
I continued working, and in less than a year, I wrote for an international magazine and got a well-paid fellowship for it. It made up for all of the free work that I had done.
Soon, I was writing for media outlets and magazines, and scripts for a science TV show. Now I have three years of experience as a science journalist and a job with a reputable organisation. I do what I love the most – read, research, travel, talk, and write.
I am venturing into investigative science journalism now, and feel deeply satisfied with my career track, which started with zero pay and no recognition.
As well as hard work, my career is a result of many people who have helped me in numerous ways. I couldn't have done it without them.
What advice can you give to people starting out as science journalists?
Take the first step. Write a blog, college newsletter, or make a poster. Give an informal talk or record a podcast.
Keep your eyes and ears open, recognise a potential opportunity (no matter how small the opportunity may look), and act when it arises.
Keep moving, and do not expect lots of money or recognition at the beginning. Just work as hard as you can.
Workshops and conferences have also helped me increase my confidence and make connections.
Follow Bhavya on Twitter.
Bhavya took part in the Newton Bhabha Workshop for Women in Science Journalism, organised by the British Council, in 2016-17. Registration for the 2018-19 workshops is open now, and closes on 3 September 2018.
The workshops are funded by the Newton Bhabha Fund in partnership with IISER (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research) Pune, part of an initiative to diversify India's STEM workforce.