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Top Science Reporters Urge Simplicity, Email Pitching And Hidden Angles
"If the story has a dinosaur in it, you've won," Maggie Fox, science and health correspondent for Reuters, quipped during a 6 November seminar for public information officers (PIOs). But, Fox said that she also reaches for more demanding science stories whenever they are effectively communicated to her, and she often writes several articles per day.
British journalist Tim Radford, speaking from London on a wall-sized videoconference screen at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., noted also that space science sells because "cosmic people like cosmic physics." Radford, science editor for the prestigious daily, The Guardian, urged PIOs to write short, striking news hooks, using the simplest language possible. Nell Boyce, science editor at U.S. News & World Report, said she looks for "hidden angles," while Alice Park, science reporter for Time, needs to be able to answer the question, "Will people still care next week?"
Peter Calamai, national science reporter for The Toronto Star, and Alison Richards, deputy supervising senior editor / correspondent on the science desk at National Public Radio (NPR), also addressed nearly 200 PIOs convened by EurekAlert!, the popular science-news service launched by AAAS in 1996. The event, EurekAlert!'s second professional-development opportunity for PIOs, was co-sponsored by Spectrum Science Communications.
Reporters shared practical tips for communicating science, as well as an inside look at how science news emerges within today's 24-hour, Internet-driven news cycle. Although Reuters is one of the world's largest news organizations, for example, Fox noted that she is one of only two science reporters there. That means she reads 240 emails a day. And since one-hour deadlines are commonplace at a wire service, she said, "if you spoon feed us, we're going to eat you up."
In the ultra-fast-paced wire business, "life isn't fair," Fox said. "It isn't about the worth of the story or the value of the pitch. That doesn't affect the outcome. It is literally the luck of the draw."
Fox urged PIOs to send her press releases with good quotes. Like all other reporters on the panel, she said that email is the best way to reach her. In email messages, she said, "Don't tease me. Send me everything." Calamai at the Toronto Star echoed Fox's advice, adding: "Please don't call me to ask if I got your email!"
Increasingly, several reporters said, remote access to sourcesvia teleconferencing, webcasting, or similar technologiesis essential, as Web-based coverage drives news cycles ever faster. "Please, please," said Park of Time, summing up her colleagues' sentiments, "have teleconferences so reporters can dial in!"
What makes a good science-news story? At The Guardian, Radford said he looks for science stories that offer readers some "reward," or compelling news hook. News release writers must avoid lengthy or technical terms, he added, and PIOs should counsel researchers to use simple language. The terms "ubiquitin" and "mitochondria" are high on Radford's pet-peeve list, for instance.
"You've got about 12 seconds to get my attention before the eyes will glaze over and the hand will reach aimlessly toward the keyboard to check for news on EurekAlert!," Radford said. "What you [PIOs] should be doing is talking to your scientists. Quite often they will know what they want to say, but you are the filter that can help determine what it is people will want to listen to."
The two reporters from weekly magazines described their news requirements as being very different from their counterparts who work on daily news cycles. Park, at Time, noted that she must anticipate science-news trends, lest her copy turn stale by the time it's published. When the story on a shortage of influenza vaccine first broke in the United States, she said, suddenly "every person imaginable was an expert on flu." Unfortunately, she added, most of proposed sources had little expertise, or were offering to answer questions that would have had little relevance the following week.
Unlike the daily-cycle reporters, Park said that she needs to know "every detail," so that she can explain scientific processes at length and work with artists who createTime's complex graphics. If a story lends itself to a diagram, Park said, that may be of interest to Time. Her editors also want to know whether proposed science stories are "a first"-a breakthrough never previously reported.
Boyce of U.S. News & World Report looks for a "hidden story," particularly a science-in-society trend piece not covered by her competitors. Such opportunities rarely arrive in the form of a mass email to multiple reporters, she noted.
"Tell me little things that you won't tell other reporters," Boyce urged PIOs. Judicious communication is essential, too, she said, noting that those who repeatedly bombard her with information via email, phone and mail invariably lose her trust. Even worse, according to Boyce, are the gatekeeper-style communications offices that require scientists to check in with a press office before granting an interview.
For National Public Radio, Richards said, science and health coverage must have truly national appeal. NPR's popular "Morning Edition" show airs repeatedly across the nation's time zones, and may change significantly between broadcasts on the East versus the West coast. NPR's science-news requirements also tend to be uniquely eclectic, and "media contrivance" is taboo, Richards said.
NPR's rejected-news folder is titled "Great news for mice," Richards said. But, she added, even an incremental science story may have a strong angle for NPR if, for example, a scientist discovered a promising new therapy through serendipity-say, by spotting an unusual mold on a teabag.
Access to scientific informationand to scientistswas a recurring theme for many of the reporters who took part in the EurekAlert! seminar, organized by the Web site's project director, Catherine O'Malley. Reporters need teleconference opportunities, several said, and PIOs must ensure that scientists are readily accessible whenever their expertise is offered.
Often, in shaping science news releases, PIOs must deal with conflicting pressures from university administrators, scientists and reporters, Boyce noted. But, she reminded attendees at the EurekAlert! seminar that they serve as an essential bridge, by soothing researchers' fears and generating trust in the credibility of sources and science in general.
View photos, handouts and other materials from the PIO conference here.
8 November 2004