Environmental and Health Journalism is not just a career but a social responsibility to our society, our environment and the larger ecosystem that we live in!
Disha Shetty, our next pathbreaker, Independent Science Journalist, focuses on investigations mainly related to climate change, gender and environment to help readers start conversations on crucial subjects.
Disha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about veering towards Science Journalism to drive impact through documenting events, covering diverse perspectives and catalysing action !
For students, if you want to be a changemaker, take up a career in responsible journalism with a focus on environmentally and socially sensitive issues.
Disha, please tell us about Your background?
I grew up in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai. I first attended Holy Cross High School, Kurla and later DAV Public School, Airoli. After school I took up science and studied at Kendriya Vidyalaya, Bhandup.
I was interested in English, Social Studies, Hindi but also Biology, which meant that I was split between taking up Arts and Science after school to begin with. Overall, I was a good student but not the class topper. My mother is a teacher and she discouraged tuition classes, so I studied on my own and bucked the popular trend of going to tuition classes for 10th and 12th; I did attend a class for Maths in 10th though. Being independent most of the time gave me a deep insight into my strengths, weaknesses and interests.
As a student I participated in several extra-curricular activities like debate, elocution, singing and essay writing competitions.
My parents were not fussy about marks and my mother told me that it was important that I understood concepts and didn’t just mug up for exams. I was given the freedom to pick my subject combinations and extra-curricular activities.
One thing that stands out for me was that my mother insisted that I read a newspaper and soon it became an addiction. By the time I was in class 8 the newspaper was the first thing I picked up when I came home in the afternoon from school. It got me interested in current affairs, helped improve my language skills, and in general has contributed immensely to my growth.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I was set on pursuing medicine as a career option even though a lot of my teachers and mentors told me that media was a more natural fit for my personality type. An aptitude test with a career counsellor too threw up media as one of the potential career options. While I did give the medical entrance exam, I didn’t make the cut. I then unhappily settled on Bachelors in Mass Media (BMM) which was my back up plan. I have to admit that I was very upset for a while until I realized I was doing very well in the programme, and having a lot of fun.
I went to SIES, Nerul for my Bachelors in Mass Media (BMM). During my college years I interned with Times Property and One India One People – a theme-based magazine. By the time the final year came around I knew I wanted to opt for journalism. I also enjoyed the eclectic subject combination that BMM offered ranging from literature to photography.
I chose India’s premiere journalism college – Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) in Chennai for a PG Diploma in Broadcast Journalism. My parents weren’t convinced about the idea so it took me a year to convince them during which I worked with the Times Group. I eventually won a partial scholarship and took an educational loan to go for the programme.
A few years later I went for my second masters at Columbia University in New York where I pursued an MA in Science, Environment and Medicine Journalism. Once again it took me time to convince my parents who had no clue what an Ivy League college was back then. This time I received an 80% scholarship from Columbia and I supplemented my living expenses with an educational loan.
Since I was always interested in medicine I wanted to specialize in health journalism, if I ever decided to study further. It was through internet research that I found out about Columbia’s programme. The programme focused on science journalism overall, covering both health and environment, which in hindsight, I am immensely grateful for, as a lot of my reporting on climate change and environment is through the lens of health impact on communities and people.
Convincing parents might be common for people opting for offbeat career paths where one’s parents don’t see any precedent to compare with and so making a case for expensive degrees can be hard. I had done my research and figured out financing options; so that helped my case a lot. In my case, though my parents never objected to journalism, the degree options I was coming up with was just totally new for them.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
Growing up, becoming a journalist wasn’t something I thought of actively. I followed subjects that interested me and one thing led to another. It was while at ACJ that I learnt that one could also be a health journalist. That is when I felt like it all fit well together. It was what I seemed to be looking for all along.
I see my career trajectory as an ongoing journey. I have switched jobs when I felt like I have learnt what I needed to at the current job, taken risks, and followed my gut instinct largely.
I have met several mentors along the way. I remember my English teachers in school – Suneeti Arora and Preeti Delair – who encouraged me to participate in elocution and debate competitions. I also remember Radhika Sharma, my Hindi professor in class 11 and 12 who told me that I was a more natural fit for the Arts stream than Science and encouraged me to think more seriously about a career in media.
My first editor Anuradha Dhareshwar was very supportive and kind and wrote several recommendation letters for me. Later it was Prof Nagraj Karkada and Dr Jaya Shreedhar at ACJ who were huge support systems during my journey in health reporting – mentoring me and writing recommendation letters as I applied for fellowships and for my masters.
Not getting into medicine was a turning point as after that I have never taken anything for granted and have worked hard. My mother too has been a huge influence as she is someone who encouraged me to be unique instead of doing what everyone else is doing and takes immense pride in my success.
Tell us about your career path
I have always taken one step at a time. Media industry is a fast evolving one. While I now work primarily in the digital media, when I graduated, the media landscape looked very different. I have always planned a year or two ahead and pivoted based on how the industry has evolved.
In terms of my thought process, I actively experimented with my internships and during the first few years of my career. I have worked at a magazine, a weekly newspaper supplement, a website and a newspaper as well as a news channel.
My different jobs taught me a lot about the kind of roles that exist in the media. There’s only so much college and mentors can prepare you for.
I have also actively disregarded a lot of public opinion, especially those from some of my peers. When I was applying for both ACJ and Columbia I was told getting a scholarship was wishful thinking. My mother was the one who was always a believer in trying first.
I also did years of meticulous research, talked to seniors, and used the internet extensively. I have almost always found all the answers I wanted. While I now actively mentor younger people, I don’t think there is any substitute for personal research.
I also closely follow the career trajectories of other journalists and people whose work I admire. Those observations teach me a lot. And finally, the most underrated personality traits – being nice and kind. I have found myself being referred to by professors, by juniors and by other colleagues or even former bosses for opportunities. While you are often advised to grow a thick skin and mind your own business, I would say that set boundaries, but be kind. It takes you places.
Within journalism, you could be broadly in two categories – an on-field reporter or someone who edits. But this would be over-simplifying, as some roles are a combination of both. I spent some years on the desk before turning a reporter and my editing experience helped me hit the ground running as I knew what finished copies ought to look like. Television channels have other roles like being a news anchor or a news producer. One could also work independently, like I now do, writing for several different publications.
How did you get your first break?
As a young college student I actively applied for all job openings I saw. I remember a website called Media Jobs then, and I sent in several applications to internships and jobs that I saw posted there. After ACJ there was campus placement that landed me a job at Times Now. Post Columbia too, it was through campus placement following which I ended up as a climate change reporting fellow at IndiaSpend.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Media is a competitive and brutal field. It evolves constantly, is fast paced and there isn’t a lot of information about salary structures. The work environment can be hard in some places.
The other challenge is that it is easy to get complacent. To make my way to science journalism I have had to change a lot of jobs. Being focused on making it to that space was a challenge.
And now as an independent journalist I find that setting boundaries and maintaining discipline is the key. I have made self-care an active part of my routine. I trek a lot and that allows me to offload the emotional distress that comes with reporting on traumatic stories like those involving malnutrition or maternal deaths.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your work
I work as an independent journalist that allows me to focus on investigations and subjects that interest me. My work has appeared in international publications like Forbes, Vice, and Undark, and Indian publications like IndiaSpend, Scroll, The Wire and Article 14, among others.
In recent years I have written mainly on climate change, gender and environment. I like to see my role as someone who documents events and I hope to start conversations on crucial subjects.
In terms of skill sets it helps to be interested in both research and talking to people as a journalist. As a science journalist, a keen interest in the subjects you are writing on helps make the job fun. I have learnt a lot over the years while on the job and my only advice would be to constantly attend workshops and take up fellowships that allow you to keep learning.
I don’t have a typical day. It is different when I am on the field versus when I am working from home. What I have are phases for each story I work on. There is a research and pitching stage that involves a lot of calls and internet research. Then there is the reporting stage that is often a combination of field reporting and in-person interviews, as well as phone interviews. Finally, there is the writing and editing stage that involves a lot of back and forth with the editors and revision.
How does your work benefit society?
I think journalism helps document events, start conversations and can sometimes have an impact. In a democracy it helps voters assess how well their government is doing. I also believe that journalists help set the agenda and diverse voices in journalism help readers understand the diverse perspectives in our society better.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I reported on a series on climate change for IndiaSpend for which I travelled to seven states in six months. It was a dream reporting trip and I was also able to document the impact of climate change on communities across India that I do believe played a part in getting the issue a little more attention. I also spent a month at the UN in New York reporting as an UN-RAF fellow in September 2019 which was a memorable experience.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
I would say that be you, and try to strike a balance between pragmatism and risk-taking behaviour. Success means different things to different people. For some it is money, for others it is impact. Figure out what success means to you and work towards that goal.
In terms of career path, I would say that it is a long journey and that there would be different strategies needed for different industries and stages. Your first job is unlikely to be your last job so think long-term and don’t lose hope if there are some bad jobs or bosses in between. Also, keep learning from your peers and your immediate seniors as their experience would be most relevant to you.
And always remember that a job is what you do, and not who you are. Have a life outside your work that adds joy to your life.
I hope to continue reporting at the intersection of climate change, public health and gender in the coming years.