Journalists Comment on Science Press Releases

In a recent post, Liz asked science writers to share their pet peeves about press releases and advice for scientists on how to improve them. Here are the responses in full. You can jump ahead to comments from:
Alan Boyle
Bryn Nelson
Chris Joyce
Ed Yong
Erik Vance
Hillary Rosner
Mark Fischetti
Susan Moran

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ALAN BOYLE:

DO YOU READ PRESS RELEASES? Yup, usually start with the subject line, often can tell from that and/or headline whether I need to go further.

WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING TO GET OUT OF THEM? Quick description of the story’s point, rundown on the key actors in the story, links to resources, art, papers, etc. Quotes to follow up on.

WHAT KINDS OF THINGS DRIVE YOU CRAZY? Long, convoluted detail about the research that shed more heat than light. Sweeping, unjustified claims about significance. Art that comes from Wikipedia or Flickr or Creative Commons (which we don’t have rights to publish without tracking down the creator).

WHAT IS THE ONE THING SCIENTISTS COULD DO TO MOST IMPROVE RELEASES ABOUT THEIR WORK? Clear callouts to usable art, multiple phone numbers and other contact info for the relevant researchers, inclusion of titles or links to drafts of the papers, particularly if they’re not being published in Science/Nature/PNAS.

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BRYN NELSON:

OK, so part of this may seem like a rant, but hopefully this is useful.

On a daily basis, I tend to receive a dozen or more press releases. Some, with titles like, “Researchers ID chemical in cigarette smoke linked to lowered levels of ‘good’ cholesterol,” or “Using the human medicine cabinet to treat dying corals,” immediately grab my attention. I love to be surprised, and a gripping headline and lede will make me read more. Beyond that, I’d really like to know the context of the work. Is this the first, highest, best, worst? And has it been published, or is it in an earlier stage of development?

If there’s one thing that scientists could do to improve releases, I would suggest that they first try to summarize their take-home message to an educated, non-scientist friend or relative before writing up the sales pitch. Use that discussion to ask: what makes the biggest impression on the listener? What’s confusing? Is a metaphor or example needed early on to help get the point across? That verbal interaction could really help refine the written title and lede; if your friend is unconvinced or bored by your sales pitch, chances are good that most of your target audience will be too.

Also, I really appreciate a nice narrative, but that’s not really what I’m expecting or looking for in a press release (though some releases read like feature stories). Unfortunately, these tend to get in the way of the nut graph, which is what I care about the most. On average, I’d say an email has about 15 seconds to pull me in before I hit delete. Many times, I never make it past the headline.

Other press releases have made impressions on me for very different reasons. When a science, medical, and environmental writer receives a press release offering an in-depth description of the swag bag at a B-list celebrity event, the email is liable to be quickly passed on to colleagues as a strong contender for “most ridiculous press release of the day.”

It might seem painfully obvious that an effective publicist or PIO should have some inkling about a writer’s beat before sending on a press release about a new reality show or the excruciating details of a company’s merger. But it’s happened so often that the cynic in me wonders whether these bizarrely off-target emails are fulfilling some sort of a quota rather than heightening the expectation that I will suddenly give in and gush about that hot new perfume in a Hollywood gift bag.

OK, that’s a bit extreme, but a little research might avoid several other big pet peeves of mine. For example, I still receive press releases suggesting that I’m a staff writer at a publication for which I last wrote (as a freelancer) more than three years ago. And no, I don’t know who else you should carpet-bomb at the publication.

Also, please remember that Bryn is both a man’s and a woman’s name. While not a deal-breaker, emails that begin, “Dear Ms. Nelson” tend to annoy me and suggest that the sender hasn’t put much research into the press list.

Finally, I’ve received press releases that are, quite simply, impenetrable. I just received one that began this way: “[Company X] announces the expansion of products offered through the Agent sales channel to include colocation and interconnect services provided by [Business Y], its carrier-neutral colocation and interconnect focused business.”

Huh? I have no idea what that means, or why I should care. I do know that the words “carrier-neutral collocation and interconnect focused” should never be strung together in a sentence that has any hope of not being relegated to my email trash bin.

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CHRIS JOYCE:

DO YOU READ PRESS RELEASES?  I do read press releases.  Not for their literary value; for the straight skinny, in the shortest number of words possible.  I’m in a hurry because you only count if you can make my next story better.  Selfish?  Yep.  Are all journalists that way?  Geez, I hope it’s not just me.

WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING TO GET OUT OF THEM?  What I hope to get out of them is…see above. If they accompany a science paper, then a precis of the paper, sans jargon, the sine qua non of the scientist’s work, and ne plus ultra.  And no fancy French words, please.

WHAT KINDS OF THINGS DRIVE YOU CRAZY? What drives me crazy?  Where to start.  Well, that’s peevish, isn’t it.  Actualy, most press releases are pretty good.  With the ‘Net, they are often tailored…as in “The drought’s bad this year, and as you cover environment for NPR, we thought you’d be interested in…”  That’s good.  But the crazy part:

:( Don’t send me an email saying, “We just heard your series on fire and drought, and thought you’d like to talk to our expert.”  If you’ve heard my stories on that subject, it’s over.  I’m already sick of the subject.  If you’ve got someone/something related, in the same discipline, ok.

:( Don’t exaggerate.  As in “the first time ever it’s been found that…” when later on, the caveats point out that it’s the first time for a left-handed graduate student from Ohio has made such a discovery.

:( Don’t be so clever.  Sorry, I know you write as well, and are probably good at it.  But it’s wasted on me.  Get to the point.  Gather ye rosebuds…old time’s a’flyin’.

:( I don’t care if someone got promoted.  Or won a prize.  Or had a baby.  Or if your CEO is coming through town and wants to add to his life list of journalists he’s “touched base with.”

:( Speaking of “touching base,” don’t ever use that term with this reporter. I hate baseball.  And in baseball, people on the same team don’t “touch base” together.  It’s just weird.

:( The worst, really, are environmental groups or their scientific colleagues who mass email press releases after some politician or government agency has made a decision they don’t like.  The release is peppered with “expressions of outrage,” each one outdoing the other for cleverness, pithiness, or snarkiness.  I don’t care.  Outraged environmental scientists are not news…they’re a dime a dozen (actually, free), and when a dog bites a man, that’s not news.  I don’t need pithy, clever quotes.  What i NEED are data, sourced, that clearly give the lie to the scientific premise of said decision.  I need ammunition, not rhetoric.

WHAT IS THE ONE THING SCIENTISTS COULD DO TO MOST IMPROVE?  
:)  What can scientists do better?  Tell me why something is important to ordinary people.  If it isn’t, admit it, and tell me why it moves the discipline forward and how? Also, tell me something about yourself that might make your own story interesting.  You are not just a data delivery system. You’re a human.

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ED YONG:

DO YOU READ PRESS RELEASES? WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING TO GET OUT OF THEM? I skim their headlines. If something grabs me, I read the first paragraph. If that grabs me, I ask for the paper. Press releases span the entire gamut from awesome to abominable, and I’m very much against copying them in a news piece. It’s actually really unhelpful to see how someone else has covered a story before you have a go, because you have these phantom words and angles rattling around in your head. Words and angles, that may be wrong or exaggerated. I try and forget them as much as possible. I use press releases as signposts to stories. And then I set fire to the signposts.

There are pleasant exceptions. Kathryn Knight at the Journal of Experimental Biology writes these great narrative press releases that are usually better than most news stories. I read her stuff for the joy of it, and because it gives insight into the process behind a paper, fun anecdotes, that sort of thing. It gives me hints about things to ask the scientists about, without colouring my view of a paper.

WHAT KINDS OF THINGS DRIVE YOU CRAZY? I’m allergic to bullshit, which is why I break out into hives whenever I click into Eurekalert. Kidding. Sort of. I’m aware that press officers want to get as much coverage as possible, so my default position upon reading a press release is to think “Well, you would say that.” Or less generously: “Probably bullshit.”

The two things that annoy me most, the two top tiers on the taxonomy of bullshit are: hype (shouting too much about something), and leaving out context (keeping schtum about something).

So, hype. “Breakthrough: scientist shoot Holy Grail with magic bullet.” Here’s an example. There was a release that said “Dinosaurs lighter than previously thought”, about a new paper showing that Brachiosaurus weighed just 23 tonnes. The release contrasted that to an earlier estimate of 80 tonnes… totally neglecting the fact that the most recent estimate was 23.3 tonnes. Becasue it sounds more impressive. There’s that bullshit klaxon again.

Lack of context. Could be everything from whether other studies have found something similar, crucial information on risks or side effects or false positives… Actually hang on, I’ll flick through Eurekalert RIGHT NOW. “Simple blood tests detect autoimmune kidney disease, help predict prognosis”. I bet it won’t give any information on false-positives.Nope. Wasn’t even trying. Last month, I picked on a press release which talked about a “new” fossil flatfish (I’m not deliberately picking on paleo-people here), and neglected to say that it had been discovered 4 years ago. That sort of stuff pisses me right off because it’s just a bald-faced attempt to game the system – you’re leaving out pretty crucial information so more journalists will pick your stuff up.

There’s also a third category, which isn’t really a *problem* so much as it is a bit pitiful. And that’s…. the boring press release. “Scientists from University A are the first to investivate the role of Food X in causing Disease Y in Completely Random Population Z.” “Scientists have found the largest EVER horned dinosaur *cough*fromWyoming*cough*.” All of these could disappear and the world would never know. Maybe we’d even be better off for it – I, for one, think there’s far too much science PR out there. My inbox is flooded with it. Is it all fascinating, important stuff? No.

WHAT IS THE ONE THING SCIENTISTS COULD DO TO MOST IMPROVE RELEASES ABOUT THEIR WORK? It still shocks me that many of them never get to see the releases that describe their work. If that’s the case, push for that because it’s your reputation at stake. But also: I’ve seen MANY cases where scientists are all too happy to exaggerate their own research in press releases that they’ve seen and checked. When I was at Cancer Research UK, I signed off some releases. Once, I sent one back saying: “This claim isn’t actually supported by the paper. The figures are wrong, and that result is not statistically significant.” They came back saying the lead author had signed it off. I had to CALL HIM UP, and point out that he was talking crap, and he quickly relented.

So, what’s the one thing scientists could do to improve the releases about their work? Well, it’s sorta convenient, because its the same thing that press officers could do to most improve their releases, AND the same thing that journalists can do to most improve on their pieces.

DON’T FUCKING LIE.

To expand on that: press releases are out there. Permanently. They’re archived in Sciencedaily, Eurekalert, PhysOrg and many newspapers under different bylines. Sure, get more coverage for your science or your university or your journal, but recognise that these things are as much of the permanent academic record as any paper with your name on it. You have a moral obligation to make sure that they’re not full of tendentious crap because your 10 seconds of fame on the local evening news will come and go, but SEO will stop your crap from flushing away for decades.

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ERIK VANCE:

DO YOU READ PRESS RELEASES? Absolutely. But as a freelancer, the way I read them is totally different than a staffer. A staffer patrols a beat. As such, he needs to know everything going on on that beat. As a freelancer, I can only sell the very best, the most engaging ideas. So I am only looking for the diamonds in the rough. Also, I cannot sell the big stories. So if there is a big announcement, I skip it because everyone will be doing it and I will never sell that story.

WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING TO GET OUT OF THEM? I am looking for the story no one else has. I want to find the thread that unravels the sweater. Interesting characters, big ideas. I’ll also read stuff dealing with what I am writing at that moment, but there is no way to predict what that will be.

WHAT KINDS OF THINGS DRIVE YOU CRAZY? If an outlet sends me a press release about how excited they are to have hired a new associate director for development and new markets or some such nonsense, they are put on my “never read ever again list.” The implicit agreement is that they will only send me stuff that is actually important. If you announce a new hire, it better be Al Gore or else I will feel like I have been tricked. When I feel tricked, I get vindictive and my finger uncontrollably gets pulled to “report spam.”

WHAT IS THE ONE THING SCIENTISTS COULD MOST DO TO IMPROVE? Improve what? Hygiene? Probably brush a little more often and realize it’s time to be honest about halitosis. Dancing? There’s a great dance studio with patient instructors on 3rd and Broadway in Oakland, California. I recommend starting with something simple, like salsa. Set yourself up for success, not failure.

Other than that, I have no idea. Scientists are an incredibly diverse group of people. Some don’t get it, some do, and some really get it. In all seriousness, send them to talented folks like the Compass people before they meet me. Help them build on who they are rather than some cookie-cutter version of a scientists. If they are charismatic, bring it out. If they are quirky, tell them to own it. I usually only have a few moments in which to decide “is this guy/girl a profile?” If they are themselves, then it’s much easier for me to see what writing about them would be like.

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HILLARY ROSNER:

DO YOU READ PRESS RELEASES? Sometimes. I tend to not cover news, generally speaking, though occasionally I’ll be persuaded to do a post for the NYT Green Blog if there’s something that’s super interesting to me. But I do read press releases that are on subjects I’m trying to keep on top of, and I’ll read them if they relate to a feature story I’m either working on or brainstorming.

WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING TO GET OUT OF THEM?
Because I don’t cover news, I’m less interested in the news aspect and more interested in 1) the people involved (as potential future sources); 2) how the science fits into a broader picture or advances our knowledge or is just generally cool/interesting/important; and 3) why I’ll feel like a total idiot if I don’t know about it. Which does not mean press releases should be hyped!! I just want there to be some justification/payoff for my time spent reading it.

WHAT KINDS OF THINGS DRIVE YOU CRAZY?
Unwarranted hype. Or when I get a release that’s trying to capitalize on some other news to sell me on something totally unrelated. Or releases that have nothing to do with anything I cover. That said, I do kind of enjoy it when something comes in that’s so completely outside my beat that I feel like I’m spying on someone else’s mail. Like I somehow got on the PR list for these conferences about war technology, so now I get releases once a month or so about trade shows where I can view the latest grenades or tank materials or who knows what else. Someday I’m going to write that story.

WHAT IS THE ONE THING SCIENTISTS COULD DO TO MOST IMPROVE RELEASES ABOUT THEIR WORK? I’m much more interested in knowing about research that’s underway than a paper that’s just been published. Kevin Krajick at the Earth Institute (Columbia U) sends out an annual (or twice annual? I can’t recall) list of upcoming field research that journalists are welcome to tag along on. I’ve never actually done one of these stories, but I know people who have. The list is a huge effort for Kevin, but it’s just amazing for me to see what all these researchers are working on.
Also, please try not to make the quotes in press releases so dry! When I see a dreadfully dry quote in a release, I make a mental note NOT to interview that person.

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MARK FISCHETTI:

DO YOU READ PRESS RELEASES? Yes, if they start with a headline. No, if they start with a generic topic that promises good things to come if I would just keep reading till they kinda get to the point which of course will become evident at some later paragraph. Examples (names have been withheld to protect the innocent): “Water to Be Top Issue in 21st Century “(Really.) or “The Cloud in the Net” (Could you perhaps be just a little more specific?}

WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING TO GET OUT OF THEM? News, or a story line. And in either case, an angle on that news or story. Editors are looking for something new, that will make readers go, “Huh. That’s interesting.” Or for an intriguing story that will hold readers’ attention.

WHAT KINDS OF THINGS DRIVE YOU CRAZY?

  1.  Press release titles that are names, not headlines. Examples: “Tokyo Institute of Technology Bulletin”, “U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Great Lakes and Mississippi Interbasin Study Newsletter Volume 2 Issue 3”, “Mintz Levin: Energy and Environment Update 8-19-2012” (oops; forgot to protect the innocent)
  2. Lists of experts: “Experts on nuclear power at Ball State University”  Okay, good to know, but there’s no news or story to entice me to look at this, and given time pressure, I will probably just delete it.
  3. A blatant bias in the headline. This tells me that the writers of the release have an ax to grind and therefore I cannot trust them as a source. Examples: “Biden Invokes Slavery” or “Coal Can Do That”
  4. No Web site. Some people only put their name and email on the release, maybe a phone number, but no Web site to go to for more info. So I have to call or email instead of being able to get a head start myself. Seems like an obvious tactic to force a callback; not necessarily enticing.

WHAT IS THE ONE THING SCIENTISTS COULD DO TO MOST IMPROVE RELEASES ABOUT THEIR WORK?Improve the top line of the release–which is often the email “subject” line as well, which is critical. Don’t think of this line as a title. Write it as if it were a Page 1 headline. You don’t need to have journalism training to do that. You see headlines every day. Think about why some get your attention and some don’t, then just mimic them. Or use Liz’s groovy elevator speech analogy: If you had 10 seconds (not 30) to tell someone why your info is new, or how it would affect the world, or the one reason someone should be interested…say that in the headline.

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SUSAN MORAN:

DO YOU READ PRESS RELEASES? Yes, but not frequently. Sometimes I go seeking for them on an institution’s website (AAAS EurekAlert!, NCAR, NOAA, NSF, and some university departments, etc.) when I’m looking for a subject, scientist, news peg, etc., for the science radio show I co-host, and less frequently when I’m looking for story ideas. Most press releases that stream into my email inbox I’ll at least glance at (see below for exceptions.)

WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING TO GET OUT OF THEM?

  1. Contacts, scientists themselves: someone to interview for a story I’m working on or want to write, or someone to interview for the science radio show.
  2. Story ideas: Whether feature or breaking news, I look for kernels for a story (even if it’s something peripheral to the main subject) and especially for central focal points or even profile subjects.
  3. News pegs for a broader feature story: a new study, pending legislation, a new EPA regulation, a lawsuit, a conference or summit, etc.

WHAT KINDS OF THINGS DRIVE YOU CRAZY?

  • Hyperbole. (e.g. “This new XYZ sensor is a ground-breaking advancement that will change the field of optics forever!”)
  • Misleading claims. (e.g.  “This new XYZ biopolymer-based cup is 100% biodegradable within 60 days in  compost.” Fine print: Only in limited municipal composting facilities, but not in your backyard.)
  • Long-winded releases with a buried lede or no obvious point.  So please, get to the point quickly: what’s the news? Who did it? So what? Answer this high up. Don’t write what looks like a feature article; spare yourself—and journalists– the time and space.
  • “You’ll like this” or something nearly as vague in the email header. I hit the delete button on these almost inevitably without opening the email. It smells like spam.

WHAT IS THE ONE THING SCIENTISTS COULD DO TO MOST IMPROVE RELEASES ABOUT THEIR WORK? Add at least a brief description of how and why their discovery advances a particular field of science beyond their or others’ previous work, and why it matters to the broader public.