Medical topics drive science coverage

With climate change, stem-cell research, and even the continuing evolution vs. intelligent design debate all landing on the front page, the public's interest in science-related issues may be the strongest it's been in years.

With climate change, stem-cell research, and even the continuing evolution vs. intelligent design debate all landing on the front page, the public's interest in science-related issues may be the strongest it's been in years.

The question is whether the media still have the resources to properly cover these and other hot-button science-related topics going forward.

"Right now, science writing is a little bit of a victim of editorial cutbacks in general," notes Cristine Russell, veteran science writer and president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, who is currently doing a study on how media cover controversial topics combining science and policy. "There are more and more potential science stories, and I do think there are fewer full-time staff writers to report about them."

Carl Marziali, science media relations specialist with the University of Southern California, adds: "The Associated Press still takes science seriously, and The New York Times and NPR have strong science writing corps. But a lot of dailies have very spotty science coverage, and what they do have tends to be picked up from the wires."

However, there has been a huge surge in medical science reporting. "Ten years ago, it was just the wires: AP, Reuters, Scripps Howard," says David March, assistant media relations director at Johns Hopkins Medicine. "Now, with sites such as WebMD and Ivanhoe, the cable networks, and the bloggers, the traffic has greatly increased."

John Seng, president of Spectrum Science Communications, adds that health reporters are increasingly demanding the science behind the latest medical breakthroughs, noting, "the reporters are doing a better job separating the wheat from the chaff, which means we have to meet a higher standard in terms of delivering better scientific research."

But in traditional science coverage, PR pros have become more aggressive, leveraging strong visuals, highlighting the personalities of scientists, and stressing the practical applications of even the most esoteric breakthroughs.

"The trend is toward 'why should I care' stories," says Cindy Clark, Scripps Institution of Oceanography communications director. "So we're responding by showing that scientists are real people doing fascinating things."

Clark adds that there remain stories that can still capture the imagination of reporters and the public. "There are still stories getting coverage due to their 'gee whiz' factor, especially in oceanography and earth sciences," she says.

PITCHING... science

The one thing science often has going for it is great visuals, so highlight what art you have at the top of every pitch

In a media environment increasingly focused on service journalism, science-related PR pitches need to stress practical applications for any new scientific breakthroughs

Breaking science stories are increasingly being handled by reporters with little science background, so emphasize reporter education and media train experts to speak in layman's terms

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