6

Scientists and other academics often embark on studies or make research findings of interest to a wider audience of laypeople. Sometimes this work gets covered in media devoted to pop science or pop culture (Popular Science, Quirks and Quarks, etc.), and sometimes even in general-purpose news magazines and newspapers like TIME and The New York Times.

If your peer-reviewed research has produced something likely to be of interest to the general public, what are the best ways of bringing this to the attention of non-academic media outlets? I imagine networking could play a big role here (that is, once you've been covered in the media once, you could contact the same journalist with news about related research by yourself or your colleagues). But what if you have no prior contacts? Do newspaper editorial desks welcome tips for science/humanities research stories the same way they do for general news events? Is it a faux pas to write an enquiry directly to a magazine journalist who has previously covered research in a related area? If a press release is the way to go, exactly how and where should it be posted or submitted?

11

I suspect the PR or Marketing department of your university would be very keen to help you place a story and advise you on writing for the media.

In every University I have worked in, this has been important, and media training was part of the staff development program. I was sent on a BBC media training course, for example, and can now operate a remote radio or TV studio, learn how to be an interviewee or interviewer and record students and staff for media inserts.

Tabloid writing was a skill I also picked up which is so different from academic writing. Learning to write in a style that the bulk media might pick up and use is not a natural skill for the everyday academic.

So go and ask. Might be fun.

7

Press releases are important for getting widespread attention. If your university is anything like U.S. universities, then they will have a PR office that can help issue press releases. Of course they won't do it unless they feel there's a plausible story, but if they do then they can be extremely helpful. Some top journals (such as Science and Nature) also try to pitch stories to the press, with embargoed access to papers before publication.

It's absolutely critical to think about timing. At least in the U.S., science journalists care a lot about newsworthiness. If they are writing about a single paper, then they generally want the story to come out when the paper is published, rather than a month later. (In some cases, they would lose interest even a week later. The only way they will maintain sustained interest over time is if the story is extremely important.) If they are writing about a larger trend, then they want their story to appear while the trend is still new and surprising, rather than being a retrospective account. This is radically different from how scientists typically think about public communication. We'd like to see stories that teach the public something valuable, regardless of how fresh and newsworthy the topic is, but journalists lose interest incredibly quickly.

Is it a faux pas to write an enquiry directly to a magazine journalist who has previously covered research in a related area?

It usually is. My understanding is that science writers get a lot of unsolicited requests to write articles on the requester's work, and having to deal with this does not make them happy. Instead, you can build contacts in other, more constructive ways. One is to offer tips for hot stories on other people's work. Of course you should do this exceedingly sparingly, but if there's a major breakthrough in your field that is very recent and exciting and has not yet had any news stories on it, then that could be a useful tip. Another way to get your name out there is by being interviewed. Your university PR office may be able to connect you with journalists as an expert they could interview regarding stories in your field. It wouldn't be about your work, but it would get you some attention, and if you impress the journalists they are more likely to remember you and pay attention to your work in the future.

Having a high-profile science blog is also a good way to attract attention from journalists, since it establishes you as an expert who can communicate well with the public (which is ideal for getting good quotes).

If a press release is the way to go, exactly how and where should it be posted or submitted?

You shouldn't do this yourself, since it would look tacky. If your university or publisher is willing to do it, then they will know how, so you should ask them. (But don't bother asking the publisher unless it's a fancy journal that is used to doing this.)

4

Is it a faux pas to write an enquiry directly to a magazine journalist who has previously covered research in a related area?

No, there is no harm in writing an editor with a story idea, but keep in mind that editors are looking for stories and writing styles that appeal to their audience.

Keep in mind the 7 news values:

  • Impact: the number of people influenced by the subject of the story
  • Timeliness: recent events have a higher news value
  • Prominence: people in the public eye have higher news value
  • Proximity: stories about events and situations near home are more newsworthy
  • Bizarreness: man-bites-dog is more interesting than dog-bites-man
  • Conflict: public anger or disagreement over fundamental issues
  • Currency: stories about issues currently in the public spotlight

So with that in mind, the likelihood that your recent conference paper on a theory for a new space elevator -- though revolutionary -- will be front page news of the Wall Street Journal is next to zero... but if you founded a company to build a space elevator and you're prepping for an IPO, than that might get some prominent placement. Then again, the conference paper about space elevators might get some coverage in Popular Mechanics.

If a press release is the way to go, exactly how and where should it be posted or submitted?

Those are pretty much guaranteed to go into the trash. Nobody reads those things in a newsroom. There are just too many cheap, online PR companies offering to spin those things out full of fake quotes and exaggerations. I have seen them used more frequently in the business world by prospective applicants looking to make their name more prominent in a Google search, or posting that stuff on their LinkedIn and personal website to make themselves look good... but it looks cheap and artificial.

My advice would be to start a blog featuring your work and covering the work of others in the field. Think and act like a journalist: talk to people, interview people, write stories, explain the big picture and provide lots and lots of visuals.

There are fantastic examples of this sort of working coming from the cartography and data science communities. Those guys are bootstrapping to try and create a name for themselves, and its working very well. A few years ago, you'd have to be familiar with scripting and programming languages to make those visuals work, but there are lots of free services to get around that.

Your blog entries don't have to be masterpieces of fine art. Keep it short, timely, and within the public interest.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.