Ask TON: Meeting Coverage

Welcome to another installment of Ask TON. (Are you wondering what the heck we’re talking about? Check here for background and check here for our introductory installment of Ask TON.)

Today’s question: I will be attending a scientific meeting in a few months. About 6,000 scientists will be there. I’d like to come away with as many news and feature stories as possible. What is the best way to prepare beforehand?

Science journalist and author Carl Zimmer:

  • Prepare a strategy. Start with the subject areas that you’re really interested in. Read all those abstracts and find the ones you really want to catch. Make a spreadsheet and start plugging those talks in. You may want to get in touch with people in advance to get a sneak preview of what they’ll talk about.
  • Chances are, a lot of them are going to be lousy—and you’ll probably realize they’re lousy within a minute or two. So spend some time finding other talks at the same time that you might want to go to as well. (This works best if the talks are in nearby rooms. If you have to cross a convention center, the second talk may be over by the time you get there.)
  • Also bear in mind that if you know a subject really well, talks on that subject may be a waste of your time. Many times I’ve read an exciting paper in Nature, gone to a talk by the author, only to realize that the talk is just a quick summary of the Nature paper. Allow yourself to go to some talks about things you know nothing about, especially if they’re lectures that offer a big picture.
  • I’m generally not crazy about press conferences at meetings, unless they’re about something I’m already writing about. You’re in a room full of other reporters. Will you all write the same story?
  • Don’t forget about the poster sessions. Most posters are pretty sketchy, because they’re describing work in progress. But as you get to talking with people, interesting things have a way of popping up.

Science News staff writer Tina Saey:

  • The meeting’s web site is your friend. Most meetings of this size have an itinerary builder that allows you to search abstracts according day, time, presentation type, key words, authors or other criteria. I usually start combing through these abstracts a couple of weeks before the meeting and adding ones that interest me to my itinerary. Then I e-mail or call the authors or session organizers to let them know I’m interested in their presentation. Sometimes researchers will give you a sneak preview of what they are going to present, but more often I arrange to meet with them at the meeting. Be sure to exchange cell phone information so you can track them down when they are away from their office phones.
  • I also advise finding yourself a scientist buddy—someone you’ve interviewed before and get along with well is usually a good bet—and take them to lunch or coffee. Pick their brains about the hot new findings at the meeting. Some may even be nice enough to introduce you to their colleagues.
  • Some press offices are better than others at identifying press-conference-worthy research. If your meeting has a competent press office staff, they may also be able to help you track down researchers to talk with. Some meetings will hosts breakfasts or lunches for journalists to meet with the scientists who are officers of the society. They are great people to quiz about new developments in the field as they know everybody and may have been involved in selecting abstracts for talks.
  • Also, if you have a few days to spare before or after the meeting (I recommend before as my brain fills up fast during meetings) take a look at faculty at universities who are doing interesting work and ask them if you can come for a visit.

Science magazine staff writer Greg Miller:

  • Reach out to the organizers. Identify a few sessions that look interesting and get in touch with the people chairing them. They should know if any of the speakers they’ve invited will be presenting new and interesting work. If it’s a meeting organized by a scientific society, the people on the meeting committee (or press office, if there is one) may be able to help you flag promising sessions.
  • Make the most of previous knowledge. If you’ve written about this area of research before, search for topics and people you think are interesting. Check in with some of your past sources to see what they’ll be presenting. Even if it’s nothing earth shattering, they may know of colleagues with a hot new finding. Be flexible once you’re there.
  • Ask everyone you meet what’s the most interesting thing they’ve seen. If you pass a packed lecture hall with people trying to peer over the crowd from the doorway, be willing to scrap your itinerary and see what the fuss is about.

5 Comments

  1. Pingback: The Open Notebook – Beyond the Press-Release Rat Race: Fresh Ways to Cover Science News

  2. I have to agree with Harvey about posters. True, some are so preliminary or of such a technical nature that they wouldn’t make solid stories, but I have found some real story gems in poster halls. It really depends on your aim in covering the meeting. If you’re after news, posters may be a richer source than oral talks. But if you are looking for features, oral talk sessions can give you an overview that can be supplemented by details in posters. Often oral talks will refer to posters for greater detail or for aspects of the research the presenter didn’t have time to cover in a 10 to 15 minute talk.

    It’s also really nice to have a researcher give you the low-down on their work. Usually it is the graduate student or post-doc who actually did the work presenting the poster and they are often flattered that a reporter would find it interesting.

    Many poster presenters also provide a copy of their poster. Granted, you usually need a magnifying glass to read it, but you can refresh your memory and supplement your notes with the figures.

  3. Harvey Leifert says:

    Having organized press conferences for nine years at AGU meetings and having attended meetings as a freelancer for over three years now, I would like to add a few nuances to what Carl, Tina, and Greg have written. First, a lot depends on the specific meeting; they are far from alike in how they operate.

    At AGU, for example (since I know it best), most poster sessions are not “pretty sketchy,” although some individual posters may be so. But, the same is true of oral sessions. There are simply too many presentations (around 20,000 this December) for most of them to be oral. Posters are not also-rans, but are of the same quality and as likely to yield good story ideas as oral presentations.

    For reporters, posters actually offer several advantages. The scientist is present at the poster for at least an hour and usually willing, even eager, to explain it in whatever detail you require. The poster stays up all day, and you can easily make notes or photograph it. At oral sessions, you are in a darkened room, furiously copying slides, while also taking notes of what is being said, and at some meetings (including AGU), you are not allowed to film or record oral sessions. There is usually time for no more than one question, and it probably won’t be yours. Also, given the huge number of posters, new ones each day, you are quite likely to stumble on some that arouse your interest and that no other reporter has noted.

    Regarding press conferences, it is true that some come off better than others and that some are more newsworthy than others. Still, attending the press conference for a topic you are interested in is usually more profitable than attending the corresponding session (especially oral), because each scientist has more time to explain his research, and there is adequate time for questions, even one-on-ones following the press conference. Yes, other reporters are present, but rarely do all of them write up any one press conference.

    • Richard Robinson says:

      I agree completely about poster sessions. They are so much easier to cover than oral sessions. You can often pick up a copy of the poster, interview the PI or the lead author, listen in as they explain it to others, and get quotes from people who are reading it (usually requires knowing that the person has some stature in the field).

      Also, look for a session entitled something like “Late breaking research.” This will often have the highest concentration of noteworthy studies, since they have been let in late because of that.

      • There are exceptions to the “posters are easier” rule and it is important that you know them ahead of time. The big exception for me is the American Public Health Association (APHA) conference, where because of the crunch of posters and the desire to give maximum opportunity to them, posters are up for ONLY 1 hour! There are monitors there making sure that the authors put them up and take them down at the allotted times so that the next round can go up.

        That environment is truly challenging and requires that one do their homework and read the abstracts ahead of time, and have the priorities for each hour plotted out as there literally is no time to simply walk the hall and see what catches your eye; one must know exactly where one wants to go during that hour.

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