Before I was a card-carrying member of “the media,” I had no idea how journalists found their stories. This was perhaps especially confusing to me as a scientist, in particular when I’d see news articles that said things like “in a study published today…” and wonder how a writer could’ve written a story that fast.
Maybe you’re here because your colleague got an article written about them in your favorite pop-science magazine and, let’s be honest, you’re a little jealous. Maybe you think your upcoming paper is just super important and relevant for the masses, and you want to know how to get it out into the world. Maybe you’re just curious, because you’re a scientist and, let’s be real, scientists are curious. Well, wonder no more!
All about that press release
Here in the 21st century, journalists are not sitting at home, flipping through the latest print issue of Science. And they're certainly not flipping through the latest issue of The Sicilian Journal of Theoretical and Computational Fluid Dynamics (I made that up.)
Nope, before journalists will ever see a new paper, they will see a press release about that paper. And they’ll see it in their inbox.
(Yes, I’m intentionally over-generalizing. Don’t @ me, journalists, this isn’t for you.)
Press releases come from two main sources: universities and journals. Journalists subscribe to mailing lists (and are often put on mailing lists against their will) from their favorite institutions and journal publishers, which in turn send them a constant barrage of press releases about new research.
Which universities and institutions send out press releases, or at least, have the infrastructure in place to do it if you asked? If I had to guess, I’d say… all of them. Of course, different institutions will have different amounts of funding and support they give to their press office. But I’d imagine there’s almost always at least one person, sitting at a desk on your campus, whose whole job is to be a “media liaison” so you don’t have to — they're PIOs, or Public Information Officers. And they’ll probably help you promote your upcoming paper (i.e. write a press release) if you ask (more on that in a sec.)
As for which journals send out press releases? I certainly can’t offer a comprehensive list, but I can certainly tell you some I come across fairly regularly:
Now, not every journal or publisher writes a press release about every paper that comes across their desk. Far from it. They’re picking and choosing the best of the best, highlighting the work journalists are mostly likely to care about, in hopes they’ll get some news stories with their journal name in it.
Same with universities and research institutes — they’re just promoting what they think has a shot at getting picked up. Don't assume they'll promote your work; and don't assume they even know about your work! Talk to them.
Timing matters, sometimes
Remember that news story that said “in a study published today…”? That writer did not see the paper for the first time this morning. They had it days, or if they’re lucky, weeks in advance.
Journalists want to see the press release before the news breaks. They want to break the news themselves. That’s why the press sites I listed above (EurekAlert!, etc.) have logins — you (scientist reading this blog post) can’t see the press releases that are pre-embargo. We (the journalists) can.
What this means is: If you, a scientist, have a really cool paper coming out in the near future, now is the time to tell your university press office about it, and tell them you want to promote it for possible press coverage. Don’t wait til your paper comes out, then say “gee I wish reporters had covered it, maybe I should get myself one of those press release things.” You’re too late!!!!!*
(*You’re not too late, but I'm trying to encourage you to do this well in advance.)
Also: Don’t write the press release well in advance, and then wait til the paper is published to send it out. Ask your press office about this — make sure they’re doing their thing (like posting the press release to EurekAlert) before the embargo lifts.
You can contact the media yourself, if you want
Got a cool new paper coming out? Already know who your favorite science writer is (me, obviously)? There’s no law saying you can’t just dig up their email (or send them a DM on Twitter) and send them a note directly. (Though, if you want help, remember your press office is literally there to help you with this exact mission.)
If you do this, be sure to make clear 1. It’s a “tip,” not a “pitch” (that is, you’re talking about your own science, not asking to be hired as a writer) and 2. why the work is interesting and relevant to the readers of the publication — why should they write about your work? We’re talking broadly interesting here. I promise, your work is interesting. But I also promise, most people’s work is not universally interesting to every reader. But you can try.
Again, for newsy (think: time-sensitive) stuff, a writer is going to want to see your paper before it’s published. Just make it clear if and when the paper is embargoed (and it’s OK if you don’t know the date/time yet, more lead time is better). Journalists will wait! It is literally our job to not break embargo.
Not always about a new paper
So far, this post has been very “news”-oriented. "News articles," in the science writing world, are usually stories that talk about a single new paper that’s just come out. Press releases are about single papers. And sometimes a writer will zoom out and write a bigger, broader story — but the new paper is still why you’re seeing it in the news, now.
But honestly, that’s just a tiny fragment of science journalism. Tons and tons of stories get written about all sorts of topics and people that have nothing to do with the “study that was published today in Science.” So if you’re a scientist who thinks they have a story to tell, tell a storyteller! How else will they know to find you?
Seriously, if you're a scientist and have questions about this, don't ask me. Ask your PIO. If you don't know where to find them, do what I do and Google "Institution Name press office" or "Institution Name media office" or "Institution Name communications team" until something promising comes up. All I can tell you is what this looks like from the media's perspective; your actual PIOs will have way more info on how to work with them.
PIOs, we appreciate you
Before we go, I must leave a note for anyone working in these "media liaison for scientists at their institutions" positions, aka the valiant press-release writers, aka the public information officers (because I KNOW y'all snuck a peek at this post!) — THANKS for all you do! I may not always reply to your emails, but I do read them. And if it wasn't for your press releases, I'd be stuck at home, flipping through the pages of the latest issue of Science. So THANKS! And do leave a comment if there's something I missed, be it for media-curious scientists or whoever else might have stumbled across this post.
OK byeee. <3
Edit: I added an earlier mention of PIO and what it stands for shortly after posting.
Musings on science writing, from a scientist turned writer.