To Place Science News, Know Individual Media Preferences, Experts Say
Panel at EurekAlert! PIO Conference
Want to place a science-related op-ed piece with the Philadelphia Inquirer? Get ready to call, e-mail and call the op-ed editor again. But, never try the same tactic with science and medical reporter Rick Weiss of the Washington Post, unless your goal is to irritate him.
To effectively communicate science, public information officers (PIOs) must know the media outlets they approach, as well as reporters' individual preferences, said a panel of top reporters convened by EurekAlert!, the popular science-news Web site launched by AAAS, and Spectrum Science Communications.
As print news holes shrink and soft advertising prompts cutbacks, placing science-news stories with major newspapers may be tougher than ever for public information officers (PIOs). But good artwork can help sell a science story, panelists at the conference said. And new opportunities are emerging at online and broadcast outlets, and with print reporters working for wire services, or on newspaper beats other than science.
Weiss and John Timpane, commentary page editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer, were two of six top reporters and editors invited to take part in EurekAlert!'s third professional development seminar for PIOs. The 14 October event drew some 200 attendees to the National Press Club.
With 600 e-mails to read each day, Timpane said, he first scans all subject lines, to quickly eliminate unwanted submissions, based on topic. He tends to be drawn to timely topics that have been discussed that morning on National Public Radio (NPR).
"Guatemalan copper futures? No! Avian flu? Yes!" Timpane said, offering a humorous description of his typical workday. "After the first hour, I've made the first brutal cut."
Op-ed submissions to the Inquirer should run about 700 words, he said, with the punchline or news hook near the top and no trace of self-promotion. Timpane identified three basic approaches to writing an op-ed thesis statement: (1) It is or is not good, true or worthy; (2) here's what happened and why; or (3) look what happened. In addition to avian flu, evolutionary biology, ethical issues related to nanotechnology are of interest to Timpane.
Submissions that aren't timely have no hope of being published in the Inquirer. "You've got to be able to turn on a dime if news breaks and get something to me the same day," he emphasized.
Timpane surprised some attendees by suggesting an "e-mail sandwich approach," whereby submitters first call him with a 15-second pitch, then immediately e-mail him, then call him again. "Now," he said, "you have created guilt!"
Weiss at the Washington Post begged to differ: "I don't like e-mail sandwiches," he said with a laugh. "I don't respond well to guilt." A single e-mail proposal to the Washington Post is the best approach, he added. In the post-anthrax era, old-fashioned letters often remain unopened in a specially designed mailroom.
Randy Schmid, a 40-year veteran of journalism, described the unofficial Associated Press motto this way: "We're always there. We may doze, but we never close."
Schmid closely follows two journalsthe Proceedings of the National Academy
of Sciences and Nature Medicineand he splits coverage of Science with his colleague Lauran Neergaard in the AP's Washington, D.C., bureau. He also tries to follow journals of the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society.
Elsewhere at the AP, Schmid reported, coverage of journal-related news is shared as follows: Malcolm Ritter of the AP's New York office assigns Nature stories to various staff on a rotating basis; New England Journal of Medicine stories are assigned to rotating staff by Marilynn Marchione in Milwaukee, Wis.; American Medical Association journals are followed by Lindsey Tanner in Chicago; the Lancet and British Medical Journal are followed by Emma Ross in London; Circulation stories are handled by the AP's Dallas bureau; the Journal of Public Health, Journal of the National Cancer Institute and some Science stories are covered by Lauran Neergard in D.C.; while the journal Annals of Internal Medicine is tracked by the AP's Philadelphia bureau.
Schmid urged science communicators who approach the AP to focus on timeliness above all else. "When we need an interview, we don't need it next week," Schmid explained. In a fast-paced wire-service environment, he added, any news submitted to him after an embargo lifts, or two days after a science panel reported its findings to the public, is useless.
In communicating peer-reviewed journal articles, Schmid said, authors of forthcoming papers should be reminded that AP reporters, like those at most other top media outlets, are careful to abide by embargoes, so it's always safe to take Schmid's call. Further, though embargo policies differ from journal to journal, most set a date after which advance interviews can be granted. (Science, for example, invites authors to begin offering advance interviews, under embargo, on the Monday prior to the embargo-release date, which normally falls on a Thursday at 2:00 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time.)
When Schmid first joined the AP, he said, "Most public information officers (PIOs) were former journalists. Fewer and fewer are today." As a result, he said, he increasingly receives calls from PIOs who don't understand, for instance, that calling to tell him about a science story that already ran in the Washington Post or the New York Times isn't likely to be helpful or interesting to him. Another pet peeve, for Schmid, is when PIOs "double pitch" a story, approaching multiple AP reporters.
AP stories tend to focus on scientific or medical breakthroughs with clear applications, Schmid explained. "If you have a news release on Patagonian toe rot, I don't care," he said. "If you have a story on a treatment for it, tell me."
Weiss noted that the 1950s and 1960s were "fine and innocent days" for science reporters, when the U.S. space program and science in general enjoyed widespread support. In that era, Weiss said, science reporters were essentially science boosters. But, he said, "The infiltration of more and more money into science changed things," and science reporters began to take on more of an investigative and analytical role. Today, he said, many science stories now include political or ethical components as well.
To grab science headlines in the Washington Post, Weiss said, "Something has to happennot just someone speaking." As the science-news hole in many newspapers continues to shrink, Weiss said, science communicators should consider alternate news beats when pitching stories. The business section, for example, or even sports columns may suggest additional opportunities for placing science news.
At the same time, Weiss and several other panelists said, as science stories shrink and science news is increasingly covered by non-specialists, good-quality images are becoming more and more important.
Like Timpane, Dr. Bernadine Healy, a physician and health editor for U.S. News & World Report whose columns combine reporting with opinion, said she also is closely following avian flu news. But she expressed concerns about media access to a copy of the U.S. government's final pandemic flu plan. Only one media outlet seems to have exclusive access to the document, she said.
"One of the biggest mistakes" in science communications "is when people clam up," Healy said. "If you have an important issue and you are not breaking the law by giving it to people, give it to them."
Healy, past director of the National Institutes of Health, said she now thinks of her readers in much the same way that she once thought of her patients. "Always, always, always imagine you're the patient," or reader, said Healy. "The goal of good doctoring and good journalism is to get the information out to the public."
While many newspapers seem to be publishing fewer science-news stories than in years past, PIOs at the EurekAlert! seminar were reminded of exceptional online and broadcast placement options.
Jim Lebans, producer of the highly popular Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) program, "Quirks & Quarks," looks for six- to eight-minute interviews with working scientists capable of telling a good story that can "charm, excite and amuse" listeners. And, David Braun, news and editorial services director for NationalGeographic.com, publishes 1,000 stories per year on a Web site that has seen a 70 percent increase in news consumption over the past year.
Each "Quirks & Quarks" segment includes a short introduction, followed by a conversation between the host and a scientist. PIOs who help their scientists communicate in simple, compelling terms, using analogies, can quickly score points with Lebans. Stories offering "signs of charm or humor" are always of interest to "Quirks & Quarks," said Lebans, who shared an amusing sound clip in which a baffled radio host had to ask a tongue-tied scientist, "What the heck are you talking about?"
Stories on NationalGeographic.com run about 700 words, Braun said, and he welcomes e-mail pitches. Because he receives hundreds of e-mails daily, PIOs are encouraged to include their headline in the subject line of each message. Currently, a "Photo in the News" feature is the most popular attraction on NationalGeographic.com, Braun added, noting that many images are submitted by PIOs or downloaded from EurekAlert!. When submitting photos, Braun said that it's crucial to ensure in advance that NationalGeographic.com can obtain full rights.
The EurekAlert! seminar was moderated by Rea Blakey, media training consultant for Spectrum Science Communications. Blakey, president and founder of TV Talks, Inc., is host of a national medical show, "Discovery Health CME," which airs on the Discovery Health Channel.
The event was organized by Cathy O'Malley, project director of EurekAlert! at AAAS, in collaboration with John Seng, president of Spectrum Science Communications.
"Oftentimes, public opinion holds that the freezing point of water is 33 degrees Fahrenheit instead of 32, which is why Spectrum will continue to support the broad, effective communication of legitimate science," Seng said. "We are delighted to partner with EurekAlert! and AAAS in helping public information officers carry science news to the public, through positive interactions with the news media."
For more information about the seminar, and to download to speaker presentations, visit EurekAlert!
18 October 2005