Harike survey reporting: responsible journalism at its finest
By Abhijit Menon-Sen <email@example.com>
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
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
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
he's written for IE. In an earlier story
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, but my mail
bounced because "Database disk quota exceeded".)