By Sara Shipley Hiles
CHICAGO – Attending a scientific conference is a major investment for any journalist. Dozens of press events, hundreds of panel sessions and posters, and thousands of dollars in travel expenses – it all adds up to an opportunity cost for which journalists must plan wisely.
Four members of the Unearthed Magazine staff – also known as students in my Spring 2014 Science, Health and Environmental Writing class – attended the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Chicago Feb. 13-16.
How do journalists make the most of these conferences? I asked working journalists and science journalism professors at the meeting to share tips for my students. Here’s a sampling of what they said:
- Do make sure you bring something to eat. It’s hard to stop what you’re doing to eat lunch.
- Don’t depend on your GPS to get you to the hotel! (In other words, plan ahead for logistics.)
- Her biggest advice to students: Look at the program in advance. Make a list of what you want to cover and why.
- Gastel, former editor of the journal Science Editor, published an article full of advice for writers and editors about covering conferences.
- Always go to the poster sessions. You can find really good stuff just by walking up and down the aisles. And the scientist is there.
- Don’t just rely on the sessions and press conferences. They’re big, crowded, and tough for interviews.
- Don’t do anything unethical, and that includes telling a scientist you will run a story, if you don’t know that yet.
- Look for bigger themes or ideas, rather than looking at a presentation as a single story. For example, rather than writing a single story about a failed clinical trial, he wrote about the trend of trials failing.
- Ask scientists, how did you get into this? That often results in an interesting story.
- Don’t run too hard on early-phase data. Compounds that show promise in Phase 1 and 2 trials may fail later.
- My own advice is to pace yourself. Covering a conference is like trying to drink from a fire hose. You can’t do it all, so alternate between listening, talking, reading and writing.
- Aim for the three D’s:
- Develop knowledge about a subject in which you already have expertise. For me, that means attending sessions on climate change, which I’ve followed for years.
- Discover a new subject. For me this year, it was attending a session on the gut microbiome, which was absolutely fascinating.
- Delight in the moment. Have fun and meet people! Professional networking is a huge, and tangible, benefit of attending a conference. The journalism tribe is small, and it’s worth making new friends.