How to Hook Reporters on Your Science Research

Credit: Getty Images

By Bonnie Eissner

Filling the media and the public in on scientific breakthroughs isn’t easy, but it’s vital, especially in light of a pandemic, climate change, and other urgent issues. That was one of the main takeaways from a recent Graduate Center Science Communication Academy workshop, “Meet the Reporter: Shaping STEM Research for General Media.”

CUNY science faculty and graduate students were treated to expert advice from Shawn Rhea, media relations manager at The Graduate Center, and CUNY Newmark J-School Professor Emily Laber-Warren, a veteran journalist and director of the J-School’s health and science reporting program. Twenty J-School graduates, all working journalists, joined to conduct mock interviews with the scientists and offer tips and feedback. 

Rhea and Laber-Warren shared these tips on how to scientists can draw media attention for their research. 

1. Ask Yourself “Why Now?”

Even though science is incremental, and there’s rarely an aha moment, journalists “need to be able to hook a story to something that just happened or that recently happened or is trending,” Laber-Warren said.  

2. Know Why Your Research Matters

Laber-Warren advised that scientists step back from their research and assess why their study matters to someone who isn’t knee-deep in it. Consider the larger questions that the work addresses. 

3. Use Accessible Language

Precision is vital in science, and reporters need to be accurate, but they also need to use language that the public can understand and easily read. “In order to reach a general audience, you’re going to need to be comfortable with dialing down the precision a little bit,” Laber-Warren said. 

“For a lay audience, sometimes less is more,” Rhea advised. She added that anecdotes and even generalizations can “come in really handy.” Also, use short, concise sentences when possible. “This will help your audience better absorb ideas,” Rhea said.  

4. Metaphors and Analogies Make Your Work More Vivid

“Having metaphors in your back pocket is a great thing,” Laber-Warren said. As an example, she described talking to an immunologist for a COVID-19 story she was covering. He used the term “Goldilocks situation” when comparing COVID-19 to tuberculosis. She not only quoted him, but adapted his quote for the headline

5. Emotion Is Important

Readers and audiences are interested in the human side of science. They want to know about the scientist’s experience. Laber-Warren advised the scientists to reflect on how they felt when they made their discovery. “Were there any surprises, or obstacles, or funny things that happened along the way? Scientists often take themselves out of their work. … We want you to put yourself back into it a little bit.”

6. Try a Catchy Title

Reporters scan through tons of studies, and you can help them out with an intriguing or chatty title. 

7. Hook Reporters with the Abstract

Add a couple of sentences to your abstract to describe why the research matters and how it might impact issues or causes that you and others care about.  

8. Don’t Wait Until Your Research Is Published

Ideally, journalists will cover your research on the same day the study comes out in a journal. Scientists at The Graduate Center should reach out to Shawn Rhea as soon as a study is accepted by a journal. 

9. Communicate the New Information First

When writing an op-ed on your work or pitching or talking to the press, communicate the new information first. Rhea advised, “Tell the public the bottom line first. This is what the discovery is. This is why it’s important, and then you can go into what your supporting details are.” 

Graduate Center students and faculty are invited to participate in The Thought Project blog on Medium. CUNY’s SUM website also covers research by CUNY students and professors. See its submission guidelines.  

10. Know Your Audience 

You may need to adjust your “why it matters” message and the specificity of your language based on your audience, and think about the reporter’s audience, whether it’s the general public or a more scholarly readership, including peers or potential funders.

11. Cultivate Your Online Profile

Whether you’re a student researcher or a faculty member, develop an online profile that covers the different areas you study and the topics or areas you’re passionate about. 

12. Join Experts Lists

Make sure you’re on the relevant databases that journalists use, such as SciLine, 500 Women Scientists, Diverse Sources, etc. Other databases are listed on The Graduate Center’s Science Communication Academy website

More from the Science Communication Academy

Scientists will find a wealth of resources, including a video of this presentation on The Graduate Center Science Communication Academy website. CUNY scientists are invited to join the webinars, held at 2 p.m. on the third Friday of every month.

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing

Submitted on: JAN 28, 2021

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