Friday Five: from a veteran science writer

I’m still trying to assimilate all the information from the college/university PR conference I attended earlier in the week. We heard from a lot of journalists from a lot of different media outlets, and much of their advice on pitching stories to the media can be summed up in a few simple points:

  • send an email (don’t call)
  • make it short and to the point (a couple of paragraphs — no lengthy press releases)
  • use links to provide background information (i.e., your press release or a professor’s website)
  • make sure your pitch is relevant (it helps greatly if you actually read, watch or listen to the outlet you’re pitching, and it’s even better if you know what the particular journalist is interested in)

These were the recommendations we heard over and over from the presenters and panelists. It’s good advice. If we want to do our jobs well and build relationships with journalists, we should take heed.

Sharon Begley
Sharon Begley

What we didn’t hear enough of, in my opinion, was the stuff Sharon Begley, a senior editor and chief science writer at Newsweek, shared. In addition to writing a science column fortnightly, she writes some engaging and sometimes contrarian features for the magazine and also posts “shortish takes” on science research on her blog, Lab Notes. Begley was the most enlightening and entertaining presenters. She spoke about how science reporting has changed in recent years.

In 2003 — the last time Begley presented at this particular conference — science journalists were mainly interested in reporting whatever the hot science story of the week was. Typically, it was whatever made the cover of the big science journals or came out of the annual meetings of major scientific societies.

Fast forward five years. Today, “We are all now slaves to clicks,” Begley said. She went on to share a quote (unattributed on her PowerPoint but thanks to Google I found the source):

[The] news media [are] more concerned with being interesting and provocative than with being relevant or serious. … In this era, with their business model challenged by the Web and other forces, and in the same scramble for audience as everyone else, these fabled elite media organs are if anything more buffeted by sensationalism and whimsy than their new media counterparts.

In this climate, “We stop the dutiful science story, the one that researches in the field regard as hugely important,” and focus instead on “people’s favorite subject; themselves.”

But I digress. This is supposed to be a Friday Five, so here’s your list. Here are five key points I took away from her presentation, which was part of a panel discussion titled “Communicating Professors’ Research.”

Five topics of interest to science writers, according to Sharon Begley

  1. Novelty, or the contrarian approach. Begley’s piece on how happiness may be overrated is a good example of this approach.
  2. Relevance. Anything that is “vaguely in the news” may be of interest.
  3. Refuting popular wisdom. The Dumbest Generation? Don’t be dumb, Begley’s piece refuting the assumptions of a recent book about millennials, is an example of this type of story. (Just don’t read the comments to the story, as they illustrate why so many people believe millennials are truly dumb, or at least semi-literate.)
  4. Timeliness. Any pitch that ties research to current events or trends is welcomed.
  5. Superlatives. Discoveries of the oldest, farthest, largest, etc., are often worth some ink.

Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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