How AAS Press Conferences Happen

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, exhibitors, and other attendees willing to talk with them.

AAS Press Conference
Photo by Todd Buchanan © 2020 AAS / CorporateEventImages

Because there are many hundreds of presentations (or, at our biggest winter meetings, more than 2,500 talks and posters), many happening in parallel, the AAS Press Office tries to make reporters’ jobs easier by gathering some of the most interesting and newsworthy results at the meeting into topically themed press conferences, usually two each day, at which scientists give versions of their meeting 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 presentations to feature in our news briefings. It’s a simple question with a complex answer.

We ask authors to indicate, when submitting an abstract, whether their presentation might be of interest to the media. But scientists aren’t always perfect judges of what makes a scientific result newsworthy. Some of the presentations that authors claim are newsworthy may not be, and some of the presentations that authors claim are not newsworthy actually are. In addition, we're often (happily) faced with more newsworthy results than we have time to feature in our press conferences. We use authors' suggestions as an aid for selecting press conference participants, but we don't rely on them exclusively.

Once the regular abstract deadline for the upcoming AAS meeting passes, we identify potential press-conference participants in two additional ways:

  1. We ask the PIOs on our AAS PIO 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 us know whether they’ll be issuing a press release and whether their researcher is willing to participate in a news briefing.
  2. The AAS Press Office team reviews all the abstracts ourselves — anonymized, and with a two-independent-rater system — to identify possible newsworthy items. We build a shortlist from the abstracts that rise to the top in this rating, and then we contact the authors and their institutional PIOs, encourage them to talk with each other about the paper, and ask them to let us 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 we contact an author and their PIOs, we 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, Nature Astronomy, or Science (or we plan to submit it to one of these journals), so we can’t go out of our way to promote it to the news media until it’s published in the journal.
  • 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 abstract 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, we always invite more potential participants than we can accommodate. When we do get a “yes,” we 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 presenting scientists, their institutions, and their funders.

Assembling the Jigsaw Puzzle

Once we have a list of confirmed (or, at least, likely) briefing presentations, the AAS Press Office needs to organize them into actual briefings. These are usually scheduled during the same time slots as the morning and afternoon parallel oral sessions, but if we have tons of great stuff, we'll add an occasional lunchtime briefing.

Scheduling speakers in press conferences is a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without a photo on the box for reference. We like to group presentations on related topics together, because doing so makes it more likely that a reporter covering one result will mention one or more of the others too. We also like to have each briefing presentation occur before its corresponding science talk or poster, so that an enterprising reporter doesn’t go to a science session specifically to scoop everybody else who’s waiting for the corresponding briefing. Speakers often have particular time constraints, such as only being able to attend on certain days, or having to chair a session, or wanting to attend a session to support a student or colleague. Finally, we aim to have no more than five speakers per briefing, or else we invariably run out of time.

We usually succeed in creating a full lineup of topical briefings featuring somewhat related presentations, but sometimes we have one or two "miscellaneous" press conferences with a potpourri of unrelated talks. We're able to schedule most speakers ahead of their science talk or poster, but invariably that doesn't work for everybody.

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 to 8 minutes, such that all the presentations combined take only about 30 minutes, leaving another 30 minutes or so for Q&A.

At in-person meetings, all presenters sit at a table (usually on a raised platform) with a speaker's podium at one end; in front of each seat we put a card giving that speaker’s name and affiliation so that journalists don’t get confused about who’s who. Behind us all is a large "step-and-repeat" AAS logo banner. At virtual meetings, we ask all participants to use the same AAS logo virtual background that we use, if possible, to more effectively simulate us all being together on a stage.

A member of the AAS Press Office opens the briefing, perhaps makes a few announcements relevant to the press corps, and introduces the topic and the speakers. Each speaker then gives their 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.

Another Type of Briefing

AAS meetings feature a lot more than exciting scientific discoveries: Policy makers give updates on federal funding for the astronomical sciences; officials from space agencies and ground-based observatories announce plans for new telescopes, missions, and instruments; and study groups report findings from demographic and workplace surveys of the scientific community. Journalists find much of this of interest, if not as news per se then as context for current reporting or as background for stories that are likely to "ripen" in the future. If we have room in the briefing schedule, we will sometimes schedule what we call a "seminar for science writers" on such a topic. The format is similar to that of a press conference, but nobody expects any "big reveal" from the presenters.

Come One, Come All!

The best way to see what an AAS press conference or seminar for science writers is like is to attend one. You don’t have to be a reporter — briefings at AAS meetings are open to all attendees. To find the schedule and location, click the "Press Information" link on the meeting's website, or check the program in the meeting's mobile app if there is one.

— written by Rick Fienberg, AAS Press Officer 2009–2021
updated by Susanna Kohler, AAS Press Officer