Friday, January 25, 2013

A Slightly Curmudgeonly Take on the Press Release

[P.Edmonds comment: It's a pleasure to welcome Nadia Drake for a guest blog post. She provides episode two of our blog mini-series about improving science press releases, leading up to our ScienceOnline2013 session next week. Episode one, titled "Science Press Releases: Good, Bad or Zombies?appeared last week. Over to Nadia...]

Q: Press Releases: What Do Journalists Want?

A: <fantasy> An exclusive, you-get-first-dibs press release that points toward a story that just can’t be ignored…about newly discovered robot laser sharks in space.

With video.

I realize I’m asking for a lot here. But in the absence of video (let’s be realistic, how many telescopes shoot such a thing?), I’d settle for a high-res artist’s conception of celestial Selachimorphs. And even though it might not be necessary, a little bit of background to put the discovery in context.

“Color me stupid, did you see that thing?!” asked the stunned graduate student whose dissertation just wrote itself.

On the off-chance that the laser-wielding astrosharks stayed a secret until formally described in a publication, I’d love a copy of the study. Or at least a link to a site where one is available. And some contact information for relevant astromarinebiologists, as well as the appropriate press contact.



The continuing search for robot laser sharks. Credit: Evil Cheese Scientist/Flickr

Really, journalists just want press releases that make our jobs easier. Sounds simple, but it’s not. We fill different roles at publications looking for different types of stories – it’s nearly impossible for press releases to be one-size-fits-all. Writing a release that will simultaneously work for a) a website that re-runs releases verbatim, b) a publication that hesitates to even re-run quotes, and c) the middle ground? Probably can’t be done efficiently.

As a result, I’m more than curious to peer behind the scenes as Peter describes how the press release process works (P.E.: episode three of our series, coming soon).

Until then, I can share what I like to see in a press release.

First, I always appreciate knowing right up top what the news is – preferably in the subject line of an email. If it’s about a paper, please tell me where and when a study appeared, and link to it.

[I realize this might be a me-thing, but I won’t write about a study unless I’ve had a chance to read it. Even if I’m just writing a brief.]

Instead of padding the text, consider using footnotes to provide additional background information, reference previous papers, or define terms (the European Southern Observatory does this really well).

Researcher contact info – preferably several – is key, though I’d be surprised if that detail is often omitted.

And… art. Never underestimate the selling power of a great visual. Scrambling around looking for photos or video makes me crabby – and sometimes, a sweet visual will earn at least a newsbrief treatment, if not more.

Things not to do?

Leave mistakes uncorrected. One of the questions Peter and I are considering is how best to correct errors after a release has gone out. It’s sometimes possible to find out which reporters relied on which press release by tracing the mistakes that appear in stories (SMH). I’ve very curious to find out during Karl Leif Bates and Charles Choi’s session how often errors creep into releases, and why …

Also, promoting a study or event that’s past its expiration date is disappointing (Great study, great pic – wait, it was published in August? Dang).

I’m undecided on a few points, but the one that nags at me the most is the issue of whether a release should suggest outside commenters. Reporter-on-a-deadline Nads says, “Yeah, good idea. Sweet!” Control freak reporter says, “No way. Make us actually do some reporting and I want to find my own people. Because stubborn.” (Though ultimately, even if an outside commenter is suggested, it’s still up to me to decide what to do with them.)

Things I don’t care as much about as other people do: Hyping (though, as Peter mentioned, there are some egregious and unacceptable instances of this: arsenic life, super-intelligent space dinosaurs...) I know this might score me some negative points, but journalists: Isn’t part of our job figuring out what’s newsworthy, and what’s over-hyped? There are checks and balances at work here. Send me enough crap and it’ll go straight to the can.

Lastly, you know what totally scores points? Finding out which areas I cover and sending relevant stuff before I ask. Thanks, press officers who are paying attention!

Here are some examples of the good and the bad. Agree? Disagree? Come talk about it during our session at Science Online!

Good: Even Brown Dwarfs May Grow Rocky Planets, from ESO. [News up top, art, just enough background, footnotes, great contact info, *link to paper*]

Asteroid’s Troughs Suggest Stunted Planet, from AGU. [This one has everything – links, news, images -- even a slightly dissenting outside comment!]

Most things by JPL’s DC Agle. For example, this release: NASA Says Comet Elenin Gone and Should be Forgotten. [Features interplanetary bogeymen and Monty Python. I always, always, always appreciate good writing!]

Friday, January 18, 2013

Science Press Releases: Good, Bad or Zombies?

At the ScienceOnline2013 meeting, less than two weeks away, Nadia Drake and I will be moderating a session about science press releases: "Working towards better press releases: What do writers want?" Nadia is a science writer for, and I work in publicity for the Chandra X-ray Observatory, a NASA mission.

Press releases have been implicated in some infamous examples of science communication, where problems with the publicity have received as much attention as the science itself. Examples include arseniclife, a cunning kraken, and super-intelligent space dinosaurs. Our ScienceOnline2013 session will discuss how press releases should be improved, focusing on the needs and wishes of science writers. It's important for writers and scientists to debunk and dismantle the weak or shoddy claims made in some press releases, and I'm planning to attend a ScienceOnline2013 session about this, titled "“They said what?!”: Fighting bullshit in the scicomm ecosystem", led by Carl Zimmer and Brian Switek. However, our session offers writers a chance to suggest guidelines for improving source material before it goes public. These improvements won't prevent all cases of communication crap, but they should limit the flow.

A press release was behind these three infamous stories: arseniclife, the cunning Kraken and intelligent space dinosaurs. Credit: World News Network (upper left), Slate & Carl Zimmer (upper right), Nobu Tamura (lower left), Flickr user "anajonmary" (lower right) and (background)

Different Views of Press Releases

For our outreach group at the Chandra X-ray Center, a press release is a useful way to tell science writers and the public about the most interesting science results and images that our observatory are involved with, using language that is easier to comprehend than what is used in journal papers. Over 400 papers involving Chandra data are published each year, and that's a lot for writers to wade through looking for interesting results, especially considering that many other observatories are also prolific.

Here's an SAT-like analogy, for US-educated audiences. One can say that the press release is to the science result, like an agent is to an actor. The aim is for the agent to help the actor - who is hopefully talented and interesting - get noticed. If the agent or the agent's work becomes the story, then something has likely gone wrong. Similarly, if the press release becomes an important part of the story, rather than the science result, then something bad has likely happened.

Based on my observations using Twitter, some people think nearly all press releases are terrible, but there's a big selection effect involved here. People hear about press releases when they're problematic and attract attention, but many solid results generate widespread attention and have solid press releases behind them. In that case the press releases don't get noticed by many people, but the science does.

For others, press releases are like zombies or zombies-in-the-making. I've spotted articles like "The Press Release Will be Dead in 36 Months" and "Die! Press release! Die! Die! Die!" These articles were from 2008 and 2006 respectively. Press releases are still around, so either these predictions and hopes were unfounded or zombie press releases are on the loose!

Are Press Releases Used?

Are press releases alive, but routinely ignored by writers? (By writers I mean good writers.) No, at least some are noticed, as explained in this excellent article by Liz Neeley who interviewed a group of accomplished science writers Alan BoyleBryn NelsonChris JoyceEd YongErik VanceHillary RosnerMark Fischetti, and Susan Moran about press releases. (As an aside, Neeley, Boyle, Yong, Vance, and Rosner are all signed up for ScienceOnline2013.) One of the questions Neeley asked is: "Do you read press releases?" and the direct answers are "Yup", "I do", "I skim their headlines", "Absolutely", "Sometimes", "Yes, if they start with a headline", and "Yes, but not frequently". The "sometimes" answer comes from Hillary Rosner who says "I tend not to cover news", so that response comes with an asterisk.

Clearly press releases have some use for these writers, at least in providing tips about potential stories, and I know from experience that press releases lead to the majority of press coverage obtained for Chandra. Some of that involves churnalism and this is an important issue that I will mention briefly later in this post.

Improving Press Releases

There are two options for improving the science stories that are inspired or generated by press releases. Either the press releases should be improved or they should be phased out. I'll concentrate on the former option here. As stated earlier, an important goal of our ScienceOnline2013 session is to get advice from science writers on how to improve press releases. The writers interviewed by Liz Neeley give several suggestions, and I encourage you to read them.

Nadia and I have generated our own questions, including general ones: What are the minimum requirements for a good press release? How can we make press releases — which are generally one-size-fits-all — useful for news organizations with vastly different practices? Is there a way to make the process more efficient for both PIOs and reporters?

We also have a number of more detailed questions: Should attempts be made to explain the importance of a result, or is there too much potential for hype? How useful are quotes in press releases? How useful is it for PIOs to provide independent experts for comment and context? How much effort should be spent producing deeper context or background in case longer articles are being considered?

Serious suggestions have been made to phase out press releases, including the press release diet as proposed by Denise Graveline. In follow-up posts she gives more ammunition for this idea and gives options for alternatives to the press release. Graveline is not the only person thinking along these lines. Here is a list of 10 different alternatives to a press release.

There are other alternatives to the standard press release, including just posting a title, lede, and quotes, plus a link to the paper. We are interested to hear what people, especially writers, think about these possibilities.

Coming Up

In a future blog post I will give more details about how our Chandra outreach group searches for papers and how our press release packages are prepared. This future post will discuss our extensive review process, which is relevant to the ScienceOnline2013 session "Did anybody look at this !*%&#%@* press release?" led by Karl Leif Bates and Charles Choi, which I am also planning to attend. This session is a response to reports that scientists sometimes do not see the press release associated with their paper, and it may also discuss churnalism and the role of the public information officer. These are important issues.

As a further introduction to our session, co-moderator Nadia Drake is also planning a blog post to give her perspective on press releases, as a science writer, and I'm looking forward to seeing her thoughts.

We are encouraging feedback. How should press releases be improved? Should they be retained? What important questions or issues have we missed? We are interested in having a good discussion during our ScienceOnline2013 session, but we also welcome feedback and suggestions on this blog and on Twitter (use #betterpr). We recognize that attendance at this meeting is limited and there are also six other sessions being run in parallel with ours. These include some well-known names and discussions that I would have liked to attend myself!

Preliminary data suggests that the session "Spies, spacemen, seamstresses, and sailors: What science writers can learn from genre writing" is the most popular, with 27 people expressing an interest, at the time of writing. That's not surprising, given the talent and reputation of the moderators, Maryn McKenna and David Dobbs. All of the other sessions sound good, especially this one: "How to make sure you're being appropriately skeptical when covering scientific and medical studies" by Ivan Oransky and Tara Smith.

Below is the full list of sessions for February 1st at 10:30am. There are 9 other sessions with a similar format that are also packed full of interesting topics at this meeting, and there are other events scheduled too. I'm looking forward to these discussions and meeting a lot of different people. This will be my first ScienceOnline meeting, so I will finally get to see what I've been missing.

Session 5: Friday, February 1st, 10:30-11:30 am

Session 5AFormal science education, informal science education
and science writing
Marie-Claire Shanahan and Emily Finke3
Session 5BSpies, spacemen, seamstresses, and sailors:
What science writers can learn from genre writing
Maryn McKenna and David Dobbs4
Session 5CWorking towards better press releases:
What do writers want?
Nadia Drake and Peter Edmonds6
Session 5DThinking beyond textBen Lillie and Rose Eveleth7a
Session 5EHow to make sure you're being appropriately skeptical
when covering scientific and medical studies
Ivan Oransky and Tara Smith7b
Session 5FWhat’s news in citizen science?
Perspectives, people, projects, and platforms (part I)
Darlene Cavalier and Caren Cooper8
Session 5GThe world's largest explainerBlake Stacey and Khadijah Britton10

Monday, January 7, 2013

Standing Out at a Big Science Meeting

After flying across the US, today I will attend the 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society, in Long Beach, California. This is one of the largest astronomy meetings in the world, involving almost 3,000 astronomers and more than 1,900 talks and posters. There are ten press briefings for science writers, each of them including several different results for a total of 42 presentations (Douglas Adams fans would approve). Clara Moskowitz, from, has already written an introductory article about the meeting and I've seen blog posts by Nicole GugliucciKevin Schawinski and astrobetter. I'm sure there are others.

With a meeting of this size, one of the bigger challenges for people is getting noticed, whether it be for your poster or your press briefing. In this post I'll discuss some ways to get attention that shouldn't attract the derision of colleagues or a visit by the local police. I'll also give an informal preview of the press briefings.

Press Briefings

I'll begin with the press briefings, where science writers are the main audience. Rick Fienberg, the AAS press officer, had the daunting task of winnowing about 1900 abstracts down to ~40 for the briefings. Astronomers attending the meeting can help by self-selecting their abstracts as being potentially interesting to the public. I'm unsure how useful this is, since it depends on how many people decide to self-select and how wisely they do it. Presumably, Fienberg will try to follow the advice given in this article, "What Makes an Astronomy Story Newsworthy?". If a result satisifies several of the criteria listed here, it may be appropriate for publicity. It helps that Fienberg has a lot of experience in astronomy publicity, having worked at Sky and Telescope for many years. He's also managed to get the AAS onto Ivan Oransky's Embargo Watch honor roll, and to maintain this status by smart handling of an embargo break.

Not only are there many abstracts to choose from at the AAS, but they are often vague about what the results and conclusions are. One reason for this is that people often submit AAS abstracts before their work is completed or even started, so at the time of writing they don't know what their results will be. This means that some educated guessing and detective work is needed to select interesting results. Fienberg also relies on the assistance of public affairs officers at universities, observatories and science centers like those at the Chandra X-ray Center or Space Telescope Science Institute. It's good division of labor.

Here are some briefings that caught my eye, and why, based on the limited information available to me. The first briefing on Monday, Jan 7th, at 10:30am (PST) is about exoplanets, including new results from Kepler. The study of exoplanets is probably the hottest field in astronomy at the moment, so this helps attract attention, but the titles of the abstracts can still sound dry to a non-expert audience. For example, one abstract, by Francois Fressin from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is titled "Kepler False Positive Rate & Occurrence of Earth-size and Larger Planets", but the corresponding briefing is titled "At Least One in Six Stars Has an Earth-size Planet", which sounds more interesting because it gives a specific result.

The next session (Mon, 12:45pm, PST) is about the Hubble Ultra Deep Field providing data on very distant galaxies, with some at redshifts perhaps as large as 12, when the universe was only a few percent of its current age. This field has built-in superlatives and these have an easier job impressing people, especially those who don't have a solid background in astronomy. However, writers might also be suffering from news-fatigue in this area, because several contenders for the most distant galaxy have been claimed over the last year or so, including one just last month at an unconfirmed redshift of 11.9.
We'll see if the briefing by Richard Ellis from Caltech, titled "Hubble’s First View of the Universe to Redshifts 12", is referring to more data obtained for this previously-reported object, or a new, even more distant object. It could be something else altogether.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Credit: NASA, ESA, R. Ellis (Caltech and the UDF 2012 Team
The 3rd session on Monday (2:30pm, PST) is titled "A High-Energy Astrophysics Extravaganza" and begins with a briefing about results from the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR), a NASA mission. This launched on June 12 last year, but few results have been released so far, so it will be interesting to hear about progress. The abstract is vague and gives little away.

I know that the next high-energy astrophysics briefing, by Oleg Kargaltsev, is interesting because I helped organize it. It's about observations by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory of "remarkable" - using the author's word - variations in a jet from the Vela pulsar. One reason this result might stand out for writers is a visual one: it involves a movie, rather than still images. It also involves exotic behavior from an object that is inherently exotic, a neutron star. These contain the densest material known in the universe that can be directly observed.

The Wednesday session at 10:30am (PST) on "Exploding Stars and Dark Energy" includes a briefing on the fascinating object SN 2009ip. I've already written two blog posts on this object, the first describing the destruction of a star in a supernova explosion, three years after it had already been thought to explode, and the second including some science background plus detailed comments from the authors, Jon Mauerhan, Nathan Smith and Alex Filippenko. Note that this isn't old news, because these blog posts were about a paper that had just been submitted, and the paper has very recently been accepted for publication. There will also be a briefing about the "Dark Energy Survey", covering one of my favorite topics in astronomy, the study of the accelerating expansion of the universe. This field presents significant observational challenges so it seems appropriate that a cosmic jerk is involved.

The second session on Wednesday (12:45 pm, PST) is titled "Precision Cosmology and Particle Astrophysics" and includes tests of fundamental physics. Some of these involve projects where non-detections or limits are expected to be found, but the observations and analysis are being pursued because a detection would be a very big deal. Results like this are technically challenging for writers but they often involve novel and interesting science. I'm especially looking forward to the final presentation titled: "Do Galactic Center Gamma Rays Come from Dark Matter?" by Doug Finkbeiner, a colleague of mine from CfA.

Poster Sessions

Very few astronomers attend the press briefings, unless they're directly involved with a result. Instead, the astronomers attend talks and poster sessions, in a kind of separate - and larger - parallel universe.

For the poster sessions, astronomers are mostly trying to get attention from their colleagues, rather than from science writers. On each day of the meeting there are hundreds of posters, and astronomers have limited time to look at them if they attend most of the science talks. The abstracts for the posters are available beforehand, so people can scour the program in advance looking for especially interesting work. In this case it doesn't really matter how the poster looks. However, other people, like me, prefer to browse the posters, and here having an eye-catching presentation can help attract attention.

Here are some examples of eye-catching posters from the last winter AAS meeting, some of them produced, coincidentally, by friends of mine. The first is by Bryan Gaensler, from the University of Sydney, who used a witty headline to catch people's attention: "Snakes in the Plane: Direct Imaging of Magnetized Turbulence in the ISM". I didn't see the movie "Snakes on a Plane", but I'm familiar with Samuel Jackson's epic, profanity-laced outbursts.

Bryan Gaensler poster at the Jan, 2012, AAS.
Here's a second example by Wei-Chun Jao and Todd Henry from Georgia State University. Not only did they include an interesting headline, "Searching for Partners of Cool Senior Citizens" but the main graphics shows two people dancing, to represent double stars. Some scientific questions were included on the left and these were presumably answered in the paper, obtained by clicking on the QR code given in the lower right. Very clever. I'm guessing they had printouts of the paper for people without smart-phones.

Wei-Chun Jao and Todd Henry poster at the Jan, 2012, AAS.
It's not surprising that both Bryan and Todd are talented and effective at teaching and public outreach, as they recognize the value of good presentation (note added May 24th, 2013: I made the assumption that this clever poster was Todd Henry's idea, but I recently heard that it was actually Wei-Chun's idea. Kudos to Wei-Chun for the excellent poster and polite correction).

For a slightly less flashy effort, but one that is still attractive, see this poster by Jack Hughes, from Rutgers University. Not all AAS abstracts have an accepted journal paper to go with the poster, but this one did. The title of the paper was: "The Atacama Cosmology Telescope: ACT-CL J0102-4915 “El Gordo,” A Massive Merging Cluster at Redshift 0.87". Already this has a catchy feature in the title, by including the nickname of "El Gordo" for this galaxy cluster, translated as "The Fat One". This emphasizes the unusually large mass for the object and the Chilean contribution to the research, where the ACT is located. For the title of the poster the authors went even further by including a superlative that's taken from the abstract of the paper. They also showed several attractive images and adopted a format that makes it easy to distinguish between different elements of their result.

Jack Hughes and Felipe Menanteau poster at the Jan, 2012, AAS.
As an aside, we publicized this result at the Chandra X-ray Center and it received good press coverage, including this NPR interview with Felipe Menanteau, the first author of the paper.

I won't show an example of a bad poster, but it's easy to picture one. Just imagine thousands of words of text, in a small font, without any attractive graphics. Posters like this are becoming less common, but they still occur. In a field like astronomy there are few excuses for this, because there are large numbers of beautiful images and artist's impressions available, across a wide range of specialities. Nearly all of them can be used openly.

Other Methods

There are other ways to get attention at a AAS meeting. The meeting has its own Twitter hashtag (#aas221) and there has already been a good amount of tweeting about the meeting. Another method is to write a blog post about getting attention at a AAS meeting, and promote it on social media. I haven't tried this method before, but it's satisfying to try something new.