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 2,000 talks and posters), many happening in parallel, the AAS Press Officer tries 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 ask authors to indicate, when submitting an abstract, whether their paper might be of interest to the media. But scientists aren’t always particularly good judges of what makes a scientific result newsworthy. Many of the papers that authors claim are newsworthy really are not, and many of the papers that authors claim are not newsworthy actually are. We use authors' suggestions as a starting point in identifying newsworthy results, but we don't rely on them exclusively.

Once the regular abstract deadline for the upcoming AAS meeting passes, I identify potential press-conference participants in two additional 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 their 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 their 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, Nature Astronomy, or Science (or we plan to submit it to Nature, Nature Astronomy, or Science), 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 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 presenting scientists, their institutions, and their funders.

Assembling the Jigsaw Puzzle

Once I have a list of confirmed (or, at least, likely) briefing presentations, I need 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 I have tons of great stuff, I'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. I 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. I 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, I prefer to have no more than four speakers per briefing, or else we invariably run out of time.

I usually succeed in creating a full lineup of topical briefings featuring somewhat related presentations, but sometimes I have one or two "miscellaneous" press conferences with a potpourri of unrelated talks. I'm 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, I ask all participants to use the same AAS logo virtual background that I use, if possible, to more effectively simulate us all being together on a stage.

The AAS Press Officer, or the AAS Media Fellow, or the Editor of AAS Nova 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.

Rick Fienberg, AAS Press Officer