Every day, dozens of press releases flood science journalists’ inboxes. Each one announces new scientific results—often crowned with superlatives like oldest, biggest, fastest—and each one is carefully crafted to pique reporters’ interest.
Some of these studies truly merit headlines. But many can only be understood as a small step in the long journey of scientific progress. Yet the convenience of ready-made stories, and the insatiable demands of the nonstop news cycle often tempt journalists to focus disproportionately on individual studies. And when one outlet publishes an article, others often race to do the same in hopes of capturing some of the web traffic on a trending story.
As a result, “ten different sources will have ten variations of the same story,” says Corey Powell, a consulting editor at American Scientist and editor-at-large at Discover. “It’s a sad game to be involved in,” he says, one that prioritizes speed over substance and gives readers a superficial view of the subject.
Luckily, science journalists can break away from what Powell calls the “commodity news” business. It just requires developing alternative strategies to finding stories, like using press releases in unconventional ways and cultivating sources thoughtfully. In other words, Powell says, “letting your journalistic sense of what’s important guide you rather than the news cycle.”
Re-spin the Spin
One way to avoid getting swept up by the momentum of a press release is to watch from the shore as the first wave of coverage rolls in. Then, Powell says, take stock of what’s lacking or misleading in the initial round of stories, and which other sources might offer interesting perspectives. That way, you can provide the context and meta-analysis to help readers place the new results into the broader scope of scientific knowledge.
For instance, last winter Powell wrote a column for Discover about the physics behind black holes, inspired by two widely (and chaotically) covered studies that seemed to call into question their very existence.
In his piece, Powell recounts the history of black-hole science (“The trouble began, like so many confounding concepts in modern physics, in the brain of Stephen Hawking”), the essence of the new studies, and what they might mean about the cosmos. “It’s the kind of story that when you step back, there’s a lot to tell about it,” Powell says.
This article also illustrates another technique Powell favors: accreting press releases until he can connect the dots in interesting ways. In this case, he merged two press releases into a newsy column. Other times, he has used press releases as inspiration for longer pieces, such as a feature he wrote for Popular Science in January, about a group of bacteria that live directly off of electricity.
For this feature, he noticed the initial announcement and news coverage, but didn’t write his story—which focused on the implications for alien life—until almost a year later. That’s when he finally spoke with the lead scientist and realized the story’s potential. “It becomes a complicated question: Did the story emerge from a press release or personal contact?” he says. “The press release provided the spark.”
These kinds of creative approaches are actually the only way to handle news at print magazines that come out weeks or even months after a story breaks, says Powell, who edited the front matter at Discover for five years. “You have to cover it in a way that will be interesting and relevant two months from now,” he says (take note, freelancers pitching such magazines).
But reporters can apply the same strategies at quick-turnaround outlets like websites and newspapers. When a study in Science generated controversy by asserting that the oft-cited global warming “hiatus” never happened, Mashable science editor Andrew Freedman solicited the reactions of a dozen climate scientists to flesh out a story that went beyond straight news coverage. For instance, he explored what parts of the study’s findings weren’t news to scientists and why most others in the field disagreed with the conclusion that the hiatus was nothing more than an apparition in the data.
In addition to taking a fresh look at the subject matter, reporters can also switch up the format of their news stories. “The Q&A is one of the oldest and cheapest tricks that there is for doing an end run around the press-release cycle,” Powell says. He recently helped produce a Q&A for American Scientist by Fenella Saunders, who interviewed an experimental physicist studying the composition of the sun. The idea came from a press release announcing a Nature paper that reported how iron interfered with energy transmission within our star.
Other formats that can turn a typical press-release story into something unique include news-inspired essays, like Thomas Levenson’s Boston Globe column on the unpredictable orbits of cartwheeling moons revealed by the Hubble Space Telescope; insightful data visualizations, like the Los Angeles Times’ drought-inspired infographic that explores the water footprint of different foods; and photo essays, like Nature’s collection of shots from the New Horizons’ Pluto flyby.
Seek Out Scientists
Press releases are like menus offering up the day’s specials: You can get a perfectly good meal from them, but if you want to taste the raw ingredients, sneak back into the kitchen and talk to the chef. Or in this case, the scientists. They can help you find untold stories and emerging trends long before they’re broadcast in an emailed press release. Building strong relationships with researchers can have lasting benefits, too.
First, try to make the most out of every interview you conduct. While reporting stories, Christie Aschwanden, a freelancer and lead science writer for FiveThirtyEight, says she always makes a point to ask scientists what else they are working on and invites them to reach out if they have new information to share.
She says people often follow through, like when sources from past stories alerted her that the EPA planned to announce new emissions regulations for airplanes. “They were my eyes on the ground,” says Aschwanden, who wrote about the new rules for FiveThirtyEight. She says her sources also helped her provide more nuanced coverage than would have been possible without their input.
Nurturing relationships like these with a handful of scientists (and connecting with trustworthy public information officers) has particular financial benefits for freelancers, Aschwanden says, because it allows writers to capitalize on the time and effort they’ve invested in previous stories. “If I’ve already written about someone’s research and they have something new coming out, I already have potentially some of the reporting done,” she says. “You’re not starting from zero.”
Carving out a beat also helps, says Julia Belluz, a reporter at Vox who covers medicine and public health. “I have found that when you develop a niche, people start to come to you,” she says. Such tips have led to some of her most interesting articles, including her recent coverage of the progress of a Congressional bill that would change the rules that govern drug development and regulation. Thanks to tips from her sources, “that was on my radar months ago, even though it only passed last week,” she says.
Belluz maintains the momentum by keeping in touch with doctors and scientists, and not just when she’s on a deadline. She regularly meets with her sources and asks what they are working on now and what’s on the horizon. “Often, it’s quite an organic process,” she says. “They are people I find really insightful and I want to have ongoing conversations with them.” Although at first it might seem strange to call without a specific assignment in the works, Belluz says reporters shouldn’t feel like they’re wasting their sources’ time. After all, you are both interested in the same things.
Leave the (Digital) Library
While press releases tend to highlight the biggest studies in the hottest journals, there’s plenty of science news happening beyond the realm of academic publishing. Writers just have to go looking for it.
Scientific conferences are a great place to start. You watch as researchers unveil new results and wrestle with what they mean, which can give a glimpse into the process behind the science. And in the question-and-answer period after a talk, you can get a sense for which aspects of the research excite (or enrage) others in the field. When you need to stretch your legs, saunter through the poster sessions and exhibition halls, where you might learn about subjects you’ve never even heard of before. (For tips on navigating conferences, see our stories on choosing which meetings to attend and how to plan a strategy).
But don’t focus exclusively on the formal presentations. Belluz often returns from meetings with a long list of ideas, many of which arose from chatting with people over coffee and “hearing what issues are on people’s minds,” she says. For instance, it was partly through informal conversations with doctors at conferences that she learned how often patients were heeding the sometimes dubious advice of TV star Dr. Oz. This helped inspire her thorough examination of his rise to fame—and what it says about American attitudes toward health.
Beyond conferences, science writers can also cover real-world events through a scientific lens, says Max Ufberg, an associate editor at Pacific Standard. The magazine aims to explain current issues by probing the human behaviors that shape them. “There’s really always a research angle” to almost any piece of news, he says. It’s just a matter of finding it.
To do that, Ufberg starts by trying to “cast a huge net” for possible stories. That includes asking reporters to check in on happenings in their hometowns and scrolling through national and regional newspapers (he recommends the web portal for the Advance Local media group as a jumping off point). He’s looking for interesting events or trends that haven’t gotten much media attention but might provide an entry point into some interesting science. “There’s no shortage of news, there’s just a shortage of people able to write about it,” Ufberg says.
He cites a recent story by Pacific Standard editorial fellow Kate Wheeling as an example of using local news to spark a science story. The magazine periodically solicits Twitter nominations for a city to cover, without a specific angle or topic in mind. One reader suggested Atlanta, and as Wheeling searched for story ideas about the city, she discovered a series of schoolyard fights videotaped there that went viral on social media. With Ufberg, she developed a story that used the videos as a springboard to discuss the psychology behind why humans are drawn toward watching violence.
Good stories can even emerge from casual conversation, like the piece Belluz wrote earlier this summer about when to throw away food in your fridge. She hadn’t thought much about the subject before she chatted with a friend who ate some dangerously old leftovers (luckily, with no ill effects) and then spotted a Washington Post story on the vast quantities of food that go to waste because people fear that it has spoiled. She realized that people could use some help understanding when food goes bad, so she compiled a set of guidelines. “I know this sounds so ridiculous,” Belluz says, but sometimes all it takes is “just talking to people.”
Reap the Rewards
In the end, it may be impossible to avoid press releases, especially for research published in major journals or funded by national science organizations. But telling these stories in creative ways can yield great benefits for writers, including the favor of editors hungry for new ideas and the opportunity to delve deeply into interesting subjects.
Even more importantly, broadening science coverage beyond individual studies better reflects the process of science, Aschwanden says. She likens the evolution of scientific knowledge to the slow work of water carving out the Grand Canyon. “It didn’t happen overnight,” she says. “Each one of those papers is like one of those erosion events.” Journalists need to tell the story of the Grand Canyon too—not just the latest flood.
That demands more legwork, but the effort pays off. “There are so many interesting things to be talking about beyond what the latest study says,” Belluz argues. “Our coverage would be so much richer if we stopped doing this insane chase of embargoed journal articles.”
Julia Rosen is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon, and covers earth science, energy, climate, and food. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Science News, Scientific American, Nautilus, and elsewhere. Find more of her work at her website or say hi on Twitter @ScienceJulia.