Harike survey reporting: responsible journalism at its finest

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2010-02-16

Someone sent me a link to a story in the Indian Express that creatively distorts quotes extracted from my informal report on Harike to try and make the case that the survey was a waste of time and money. The article is by a Dharmendra Rataul, dated today. I can't figure out if it was published in the newspaper, or only online.

I just love how terribly official the article makes everything sound. Instead of saying “Some chap who was at Harike wrote email to a public list, and someone sent me a copy”, the article begins thus:

The controversy over the census of migratory birds at Harike wetland took a new turn on Monday when a member of the Census Committee constituted by the state wildlife department traced serious lacunae in the process. Abhijit Sen, a bird watcher who was on the census panel, has stated in a letter (sent via e-mail) to the Chandigarh Birds Club (CBC), the nodal agency that helped conduct the survey, that he was sad that the entire exercise was like a “free vacation”.

Nobody told me that a Census Committee (or was it a panel?) had been constituted, much less that I was a member of it. The Chandigarh Birds Club (which, as far as I know, is just a mailing list) becomes a "nodal agency" with its own acronym. Email becomes a letter, which The Indian Express has mysteriously obtained a copy of. But the best part is that my trip report is made to sound like some weighty official critique (lacunae!), when I wrote right at the beginning that:

My memories of the time I spent at Harike are already fragmented, and I don't feel up to writing another exhaustive report. Instead, here's a selection of the more vivid moments that I will remember the trip by—not in any particular order, and with no attempt to fill in the fuzzy grey areas in between.

Having selected such a solid foundation for his news report, Mr. Rataul goes on to disingenuously reorder two carefully-selected sentences from my (approximately four thousand word) report.

“Sadly I noticed that many people who had volunteered to help with the survey treated the entire exercise as a little more than a free vacation,” he has stated in the letter, a copy of which is The Indian Express (sic). He said he noticed a similar attitude during surveys at the Pong Dam (Himachal) too. “A total count (of birds) was impossible in the circumstances,” he stated.

In my report, the second sentence is in a different paragraph from the first one, and refers to a completely different set of circumstances, which I enumerate: “…because a total count was impossible in the circumstances (distance, rocking boat, lots of movement in the flocks), we sampled parts of the flock…”. Anyway, I was using "total count" in its technical sense where bird surveys are concerned. A little basic research would have told Mr. Rataul that total counts of flocking birds in large areas is often not possible, no matter how many scientists are present.

I notice, too, that "I was sad that P treated X as Y” has been summarised as “I was sad that X was Y”. But the article does not, of course, mention what I said in a subsequent "letter" in response to a comment about the "free vacation" bit.

It is true that there were people at Harike who did not take the survey seriously, but that is a potential risk with any volunteer-based survey effort. It is regrettable, and I hope that steps can be taken in future to make participants more aware of the methodology and implications of the work they're doing, and thus take it more seriously.

But I can also say that there were serious, interested birders at Harike who did their sincere best during data collection, and I don't think that the funds have "gone down the drain" at all. Every census, whether conducted by volunteers or professionals, has sources of error and scope for improvement. Just because I pointed out one problem does not mean that the entire effort was a waste.

I had never heard of Mr. Rataul, so I looked at some of the other articles he's written for IE. In an earlier story about the Harike survey, he says: “The majority of the birds are gray-legged geese, though bar-headed geese, mallard duck, pin-tale duck, porchid, varieties of avifauna, pelicans, flamingoes and teals have also been spotted.”

I realise it's unfair to expect a journalist these days to know anything about the subject he's covering, but really, where on earth did he find a word like "porchid"? And does he think "avifauna" is a specific kind of bird, like "geese"?

Anyway, with all the integrity and competence evident in Mr. Rataul's articles, I should consider myself fortunate that he at least managed to get my name right… oh, wait, scratch that. I guess correctly cutting and pasting my name from an email was also beyond him.

(I sent a complaint to editor@expressindia.com, but my mail bounced because "Database disk quota exceeded".)