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From the Executive Office

Thursday, December 5, 2013 - 20:26

Like most scientific societies, to encourage media coverage of its meetings the AAS offers complimentary press registration (a "press badge") to journalists, freelance science writers, and public-information officers (PIOs) who meet certain qualifications. Press registrants have access to all the same sessions as paid registrants, which means they can attend plenary lectures, short oral talks, poster sessions, Town Halls, and so on, and they can interview any researchers willing to talk with them.

Because there are many hundreds of presentations, many happening in parallel, I try to make reporters' jobs easier by gathering some of the most interesting and newsworthy results into topically themed press conferences, usually two each day, at which scientists give versions of their presentations specifically designed to be accessible to the public and at which reporters have ample opportunity to ask questions. Since it's not always possible for reporters who want to cover the meeting to attend in person, we webcast our news briefings to offsite journalists and make it possible for them to ask questions of the presenters too.

Decisions, Decisions

We're often asked, by AAS members as well as journalists, how we decide which papers to feature in our news briefings. It's a simple question with a complex answer.

We used to ask authors to indicate, when submitting an abstract, whether their paper might be of interest to the media. It didn't take long for us to figure out that scientists aren't particularly good judges of what makes a scientific result newsworthy. Many of the papers that authors claim are newsworthy actually are not, and many of the papers that authors claim are not newsworthy actually are.

If we can't rely on scientists to identify newsworthy results, what do we do instead? Once the regular abstract deadline for the upcoming AAS meeting passes, I identify potential press-conference participants in two ways:

  1. I ask the PIOs on the AAS press list to search through the abstracts from authors at their institutions and look for possible newsworthy items. When they spot something interesting they talk with the researcher to get more information, and if they decide they really do have something newsworthy on their hands, they let me know whether they'll be issuing a press release and whether their researcher is willing to participate in a news briefing.
  2. I browse through all the abstracts myself to look for possible newsworthy items. When I find something that looks promising, I contact the author and his or her institutional PIO, encourage them to talk with each other about the paper, and ask them to let me know if they have a newsworthy result that they'd like to promote via a press release and/or the author's participation in a news briefing.

In situation number 2, when I contact an author and his or her PIO, I get a variety of responses, usually some variant of one of these:

  • Yes, we have a newsworthy result, and the author would be delighted to join a press conference.
  • Yes, we have a newsworthy result, but we're already planning to issue a press release before the AAS meeting, so it'll be old news by the time the meeting begins.
  • Yes, we have a newsworthy result, but it's in press and under embargo at Nature or Science (or we plan to submit it to Nature or Science), so we can't go out of our way to promote it to the news media until it's published.
  • Yes, we have a newsworthy result, but we published it six months ago, and it got some press attention back then (or nobody noticed it), so it's old news and not appropriate to publicize now.
  • Yes, we have a newsworthy result, but our institution's and/or funding agency's policy prohibits us from participating in a press conference or issuing a press release before we have a paper accepted for publication, and we don't yet.
  • We think we're on to something, but our results are preliminary, so we're not ready to tout them at a briefing at this meeting — please check with us again before the next one.
  • We got clouded out at the telescope, so the results we were hoping to present at the meeting aren't actually in hand yet. In fact, we're considering withdrawing the paper from the meeting.
  • No, our results aren't newsworthy. In fact, they're totally unexciting and probably erroneous. (Just kidding: Nobody ever says that!)

As you can see, there are more ways to say "no" to participating in a press conference than there are to say "yes," even when an author has something truly exciting to present. Accordingly I always invite more potential participants than I can accommodate. When I do get a "yes," I encourage the presenter's PIO to issue a press release to further help make journalists' job easier, i.e., to provide additional text, quotes, background, images, video, etc. to go with the story. The AAS itself does not issue press releases about individual results presented at our meetings — we provide the venue and make it easy for journalists to attend, but the glory appropriately belongs to the scientists and their institutions.

What Happens at an AAS Press Conference?

The purpose of a press conference is to get journalists interested in writing a story — it isn't to tell them the whole story. We typically have three or four presenters, and occasionally we add an independent commentator to provide context, perspective, and quotable quotes.

An AAS briefing lasts no more than 1 hour. Each participant speaks for 6 or 7 minutes, such that all the presentations combined take only about 30 minutes, leaving another 30 minutes for Q&A.

All presenters sit at a table (sometimes on a raised platform) at the front of the room; in front of each seat we hang a placard giving that speaker's name and affiliation so that journalists don't get confused about who's who.

I or one of my deputies (Larry Marschall or Inge Heyer) open the briefing, perhaps make a few announcements relevant to the press corps, and introduce the topic and the speakers. Each speaker then gives his or her presentation, one after the other. After the last presentation the floor is opened for questions from the audience, including any reporters who are participating via the webcast.

Come One, Come All!

The best way to see what an AAS press conference is like is to attend one. You don't have to be a reporter — news briefings at AAS meetings are open to all attendees. The schedule is always posted in the AAS press room and on an easel outside the briefing room. At the 223rd AAS meeting in Washington, DC, 5-9 January 2014, you'll find the press facilities in the Chesapeake rooms at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. See you there! 

Richard Tresch Fienberg
Press Officer & Director of Communications
American Astronomical Society
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