MEDIA ROUNDUP: Press discovers new science angles

With health emerging as a major area of consumer interest, those pitching science-related clients must adjust their tactics to stay on the media's radar.

With health emerging as a major area of consumer interest, those pitching science-related clients must adjust their tactics to stay on the media's radar.

The public's fascination with science began four decades ago with the space race, and has been fueled by huge advances in technology, medicine, paleontology, and astronomy. But science journalism is currently at a crossroads, as some indications suggest that consumer interest has swung toward health and medical news. Diane McGurgan, executive director of the National Association of Science Writers, says that the number of papers with dedicated science sections has dipped steadily since the late 1980s. "Science is always first to go when money gets tight," she says, adding that many science sections were supported by tech- and health-related advertising and therefore suffered when the dot-com bubble burst. "Now about half of my members are freelancers." Shift in science coverage The shift doesn't necessarily reflect a loss of interest in science news, but rather changing consumer tastes - with physics, botany, and space losing out to stories on how to live longer and feel better. "My impression is that a lot of publications are moving toward health and medicine and away from pure science," says Ginger Pinholster, director of the Office of Public Programs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Pinholster says a recent survey of 270 science reporters found that nearly half listed medicine as the top subject of interest, followed by stem-cell research, cloning, and the environment. She notes that the lone exception to this trend is science-related stories involving animals. "If it has fur, it will get ink. If it had fur at one time and it is now a fossil, it will also get ink," she says. Norman Booth, VP with New Jersey-based firm Keating & Co., says one thing that tends to work against science-related stories is that not every development is a major breakthrough. "It's harder to pitch editors who [cannot] grasp the significance of incremental science," he says. But with the amount of space devoted to pure science on the decline, Laura Goldberg, VP at Trylon Communications, suggests that science-related stories can be pitched to other beats. Goldberg, who represents Archaeology magazine as well as the Court TV series Forensic Files, says she looks for story angles where science converges with technology or even pop culture. "When the movie Troy was coming out, there was some debate about whether Troy really existed," she says. "We were able to get a full-page story in USA Today that quoted the editors of Archaeology. These types of stories allow the science editor to bring something to the fold that's going to have pop-culture resonance and yet still explore science." Richard Hill, science writer at The Oregonian, also stresses the need to help reporters localize whatever national science trends are out there. "I'm not totally provincial, but being at a regional paper I'm more interested in developments from this area," he says. "I get a lot of calls from New York and Washington. The first thing I ask them is if there is a local connection, such as research done here." Hill adds that the bulk of the stories he writes involve scientists at either universities or government agencies. And while he will write stories involving for-profit science-related companies, those firms often have proprietary information they 're reluctant to disclose, he says. Educating reporters Marion Glick, SVP with Porter Novelli's healthcare media relations practice, says most science writers - especially at major titles - do have a background or extensive experience that allows them to grasp the significance of many new developments. But Glick adds that given the breadth and complexity of science, some reporter education is inevitable. "With the human genome story, even reporters with a background in the life sciences had to learn all the terminology of how to map the genome," she says. Glick adds that the key to getting any science story covered is making sure the scientist behind any new discovery can explain it - and its significance - in everyday terms. "All the various fields of science have specialized language that helps convey what they're doing with great accuracy," she says. "But when a person leaves that environment and suddenly has to talk to someone who isn't in that field, they can't use those same words, so they all benefit from either media training or message training to learn how to talk to a lay audience." ---- Pitching... science
  • Look to place stories in news sections of peer-review journals such as 'Science' because those are the publications that tend to be read by science writers who work for more general-interest outlets
  • Most science professionals assume that the public knows a lot more about their field than they actually do. As such, media training scientists to speak in laymen's terms is paramount
  • Look for the scientific angle in breaking news stories to get coverage above and beyond the dedicated science section

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