Disha Shetty

Country/area: India

Organisation: Undark, Hakai, Article 14

Organisation size: Small

Cover letter:

Dear Judges,

I am an independent science journalist based in Pune, India. I request you to consider my portfolio of data-driven stories on health and environment for the Sigma Awards 2022. 

I have over a decade of work experience working across television, print and digital platforms in India in both full-time and independent roles. In 2017-18 I attended Columbia University for a mid-career masters programme on a scholarship that focused on health, environment and medicine journalism. My work since returning to India after that programme has involved taking all that training and putting it to use in a developing world setting. 

I am a science journalist whose work intersects themes like gender, health and environment. Often a single piece of mine has all of those elements given most environment stories also have public health impacts for affected communities. In recent years I have travelled around India documenting the impact of climate change, reported from the UN on a UN fellowship and more recently reported from COP26 on an Earth Journalism Network fellowship for journalists from the developing countries.

Dr Randi Epstein at Columbia University and Samar Halarnkar, editor of Article 14, are among those I consider my mentors. Dr Jaya Shreedhar who taught me health reporting at Asian College of Journalism in 2012-13 and Dr Nagaraj Karkada an adjunct faculty there are also big influences. Both of them had encouraged me to apply to Columbia University and written my recommendation letters. 

Much of my reporting is supported by grants from the Pulitzer Center, EJN and International Women’s Media Foundation that I have used to report on underreported issues from rural and tribal parts of India. My reporting has appeared in publications both in India like IndiaSpend and The Wire, and in international publications like Undark, Hakai and Forbes, among others. 

In my reporting I aim to use data effectively and marry it with story-telling. For me this means using scientific studies, government data as well as those from interviews and to tell a coherent story. This is important as in a developing country setting data in isolation might not tell the full story as the data could be incomplete, entered wrongly or entirely absent. Often the lack of data tells a bigger story and in my reporting I try to highlight these aspects that form an integral part of data journalism in any developing country. Another aspect I pay close attention to in my climate reporting is interpreting global data sets for local audiences and what it could mean for them. 

The stories I am entering as a part of the portfolio have been commissioned by a range of Indian and international publications as I spent all of 2021 working as an independent journalist. I request you to consider my portfolio for this award. 

Warm Regards,

Description of portfolio:

Dear jury members,

Thank you for your time in going through my stories. I will briefly explain my rationale behind entering each of these pieces. 

The first piece is an essay for the international publication Undark that looked at emerging evidence on how women were responding better to COVID guidelines and how we could use this information to guide our policy response. This essay was based on a scientific study and was written at a time when pandemic response left out women’s voices right after the first wave, something that has since been more balanced. For me this piece was an attempt to use data to make a case for representation of more women in response.

My second and third pieces were from a project funded by the Pulitzer Center. It was a project on which I spent a year start to finish. From getting the funding to travel to then finding a home for the piece – it was a long journey. The story involved taking on big corporations that most Indian publications didn’t want to. I looked at the impact of coal dust in India’s smallest state Goa and raised the issue of lack of scientific evidence on how it was affecting the health of the community breathing in the coal dust. For the piece I married ground reporting, scientific evidence and raise the issue of lack of certain evidence that would weaken the community’s fight for justice in the court of law. 

In the third piece I spoke of how this is a systemic issue and explored how this lack of scientific evidence is a recurring theme in most environmental issues in India. This then allows governments and corporations to get away with wrongdoing. In this series I merged my expertise in both health and environment reporting to highlight systemic issues. I highlighted how lack of data fails many fights for justice – a theme familiar to most developing countries. 

My final piece was also for Undark where I unpacked why it is important for any country to keep track of its dead. The piece was written at a time when a large number of Indians were dying of COVID and I stepped back to unpack what deaths tell us about the health of the living and why registering the dead is important for the living. Again, I tried to tell a systemic story here highlighting the need to maintain better public health data. 

In all, my portfolio of stories range from solutions journalism to ground reporting with data being a common theme. It is also an example of what data journalism can look like in developing countries where the quality of data is dubious and quantity limited. I request you to consider the piece for the award. Thank you. 

Warm Regards,

Project links: