Figure One

Science. Communication. Community.

For Scientists: This Is Where The News Comes From

There are hundreds of thousands of scientific papers published every year.  How do science journalists pick topics for articles?  And how can scientists help their work get some media attention?

by Jessica Stoller-Conrad

Will the results of this experiments ever find an audience?

Will the results of this experiments ever find an audience? (Image credit:  Jeremy Wilburn via Flickr)

In his recent post for Figure One, Ian Campbell touched on an interesting conundrum: if two competing researchers simultaneously publish similar papers on the same topic, why does one paper get more media attention?

As a scientist toiling away in the lab, it’s tempting to formulate a conspiracy theory about how your research competitor paid off members of the national media to land that piece in the newspaper.  However, the real answer is probably not this juicy or complicated.

Simply put, your competitor’s work is probably just more accessible to the media.  Science journalists have a few tried and true story sources, so if you think your research merits a little extra media attention, it’s easiest to reach journalists in their “natural idea habitats,” three of which I’ve listed below:

1.  Websites offering embargoed content.

Websites like EurekAlert, Newswise, AlphaGalileo, and others serve to aggregate the latest research news releases submitted by universities, journals, and conferences. Researchers can check with their university’s press office to make sure that they’re aware of the influential publicity service these websites provide.

If you’re a journalist, you can gain special access to “embargoed” content – meaning articles that haven’t yet been made public.  But there’s a catch: if reporters want a sneak-peek, they can’t share or publish any of this information until the embargo lifts.  This usually happens once the journal is published or the conference presentation is over.

Do journalists ever break this universal honor code?  Yes, but it can severely damage their reputations.  And sometimes even scientists and journals can break their own embargo.  Reuters Health executive editor Ivan Oransky keeps track of these frequent hiccups on his blog, Embargo Watch.

(If you want to learn more about embargoes, David Schultz wrote a great post for the NPR health blog on the embargo process and its implications for some health findings.)

2.  E-mail lists from press officers and researchers.

Though a reporter can get a nice neat package of embargoed press releases from any of the above websites, so can every other reporter in the biz.  If the reporter wants to cover something unique (and most do), she’ll try to get on mailing lists with universities, professional societies, and field-specific journals.  If you follow the work of someone who frequently writes about your field of study, you could even try to reach out to her directly.

Experienced reporters start to develop relationships with the people they’ve interviewed.  If the reporter needs a particle physicist who’s a good talker, she’ll call Dr. ABC, if she needs an expert in cancer cell biology, she’ll call Dr. XYZ.  Because of this professional relationship, the next time Dr. ABC publishes his research, he might give the reporter a heads-up.  And though his results might be the same as his simultaneously-published competitor, this past reciprocal relationship gives Dr. ABC a publicity advantage.

3.  Current events and pop culture references.

When a news reporter is selecting her next science or health story, there is one basic question she needs to answer:  why is this topic important or interesting RIGHT NOW?

If you’re a scientist and you want more media attention for your work, it helps to stay informed of current events – and don’t be afraid of creativity.  Did you just publish a paper on a region of the brain responsible for the human impulse to save money?  Did you notice that the cheapskate anthem “Thrift Shop” is currently topping the charts?  Most reporters have a sense of humor, and you could help your university’s press officer work this connection into an enticing news release.

Though I can’t guarantee that these suggestions will get your research a spot on the front page of the New York Times — occasionally researchers and the media communicate on entirely different wavelengths — I hope that they can help your hard work get the exposure it deserves.

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About jstoll01

Jessica began her journalistic endeavors as an embarrassingly informal food critic for her college newspaper. After dropping the fork and picking up a micropipettor, she spent two years as a genetics research technician and three years in graduate school before trying her hand at science writing. Upon receiving a Master’s degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Notre Dame in May 2012, Jessica participated in the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship program as a Science Desk intern at NPR in Washington, D.C. There, she contributed a number of posts to the health blog (Shots) and the food blog (The Salt). She continues to write regularly for the NPR blogs, National Geographic News and other media outlets as a freelancer, currently based in Southern California.

2 comments on “For Scientists: This Is Where The News Comes From

  1. kelly tyrrell
    February 28, 2013

    Great advice and a very helpful explainer =)

  2. Pingback: InSolution » Weekly Webcrawl: Sequestration edition

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This entry was posted on February 28, 2013 by in Research, Science Journalism.
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