How journalists cover scientific conferences: do’s and don’ts

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.

My writers

MU science journalism students Caleb O’Brien, Art Cook Bremer, Jack Suntrup and Christine Coester are hard at work in the AAAS media room. Photo by Sara Shipley Hiles

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:

Irene Klotz, Discovery Communications:

  • 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.)

Dr. Barbara Gastel, coordinator of MS program in science and technology journalism, Texas A&M University:

  • 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.

Harvey Leifert, freelance science writer:

  • 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.

Ron Winslow, deputy bureau chief, health and science for the Wall Street Journal; president, National Association of Science Writers:

  • 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.

Sara Shipley Hiles, longtime environmental journalist:

  • 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:
  1. 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.
  2. Discover a new subject. For me this year, it was attending a session on the gut microbiome, which was absolutely fascinating.
  3. 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.
Sara meets Sue the T. Rex at the Field Musuem.

Sara meets Sue the T. Rex at the Field Museum during the Kavli science journalism award presentation.

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