Ask us anything: should you contact news media to promote your own research?

A while back we invited our readers to ask us anything. Here’s today’s question, from Chao Song, and our answers:

Do you think it is a good idea to contact news media to promote one’s own work? If so, do you think it is appropriate to promote a preprint or do you think it should only be done to published work?

Jeremy’s answer:

I’m probably the wrong person to ask about this. My work is mostly not the sort of thing even the popular science media would ever be interested in, never mind broader news media. And I’m not even on Twitter, which is where the reporters are. So everything I’m going to say is probably either boringly obvious, or wrong. Sorry; consider yourself warned! 🙂

I guess my first question is, why bother? I mean, what would you accomplish by reaching out to news media that wouldn’t be accomplished as well or better by your institution putting out a press release (which you could help to write)?

I guess if you had a sufficiently high social media profile, that might help you get a foot in the door with some members of the news media? News media members who wouldn’t look at yet another random press release might listen if someone with a sufficiently high profile reached out to them, I guess? Especially if you reached out in ways that help the reporter, not just you. Like, if your research has some direct connection to the news of the day, that seems like the sort of thing a reporter might well find helpful. Or imagine you cultivated a long-term professional relationship with members of the news media, becoming one of their go-to sources for commentary on a range of scientific matters. But of course, steps 1 there is either “establish a sufficiently high social media profile”, or “become a trusted source for members of the news media”. You can’t do those things just by tweeting or blogging about your own research. My thinking here is along the same lines as my thinking about networking at conferences.

Here’s science reporter Ed Yong’s advice for scientists on talking to reporters. His advice is focused on cases in which the reporter approaches the scientist, though some of it seems like it would generalize to cases where the scientist approaches the reporter. Here’s advice from several other top science journalists on how to talk to journalists. Here’s some advice to journalists on how to find good ideas for scientific stories (notice that “wait for random scientists to contact you asking you to write about their work” is not among the suggestions). Here’s another piece with advice to science journalists on how to find ideas for scientific stories. Finally, here’s a good piece from sociologist Kieran Healy on the distinction between “public sociology” and “doing sociology in public”. Much of it generalizes to science, I think. It’s about a broader range of stuff than just “getting your work in the media”, which I think is a good thing.

Brian’s answer:

My view is that some but not all scientists should engage in outreach (which includes media engagement, public talks, K-12 education engagement, etc). Specifically the scientists who want to and are good at it should. The ones who don’t feel the call, needn’t feel like it is the trendy thing to do and can contribute in other ways.

So I guess my first answer to your question is a question. Do you want to engage with the media? If so then go for it.

As for how to engage with the media, there are a lot of people with more experience than I. But in my experience it usually starts with building relationships with reporters. You become an expert in their contact list that they call. It can start with an interaction around a particular paper you wrote. It can start with listing yourself as an expert in the directory that most university media office maintain. In my case it frequently starts with blogging about recent papers.

It is definitely worth getting media training (NSF often sponsors this) if you want to do it. Key points include preparing in advancing and knowing what your key point you want to get across is, learning how to describe your point without technical jargon but with accurate but relatable language or analogies, and researching the reporter in advance so you know what their angle is.

There are times and places where results are so urgent than using a pre-print is appropriate because the urgency outweighs the need for caution. That is happening a lot for epidemiologists and medical researchers. But in my opinion that almost never happens in ecology. Indeed, I think ecology would have been better served if our few preprints on COVID did not get introduced to the media until they had been peer reviewed. The biodiversity crisis, etc are urgent on one level, but not on the time scales that they can’t wait for peer review which is usually measured in a few months.

10 thoughts on “Ask us anything: should you contact news media to promote your own research?

  1. In response to Jeremy’s “why bother” – most of us are publicly funded, so when we have something that is likely of interest to people, then I think it is important we actually share our findings with the public rather than just publishing scientific papers (ie, you should do it for them, not for you).

    I think it is worth starting the process (at many institutions there will be no press release unless you do initiate one) but unless you are a media pro, I would start by contacting your institution’s media office (who otherwise won’t hear about the work until it is published – while the day it is most news-worthy is the day it is published).

    I would never go to the media for a pre-print – I usually get on to the press release between acceptance and publication – the proof stage is a good time to reach out.

    Media training is invaluable.

    • I would second contacting your university media officer. Not only are they good at knowing what will get picked up but they’re good at communicating And they have a list of contacts in the media (that presumably are science and research oriented). Much better than contacting media directly yourself.

  2. Usually, I’d start contact with a journalist about a new article as follows [only contacting those that I have 1st or 2nd hand connection with.

    email template:
    sentence 1 – introduces the connection with the journalist [past conversation, 2ndary connection-often cd, etc.] E.g. “We talked about ____ back when ____” which primes them that this email is not spam, it’s related to someone they know.
    sentence 2 – 1 sentence result/importance summary.
    sentence 3 – “Would you like to see the forthcoming article and press release? Get it before others can see it.” Request them to act if they want to see more. Don’t give them everything up front, its a waste of both your and their time. They’ll be more intrigued by the mystery, and the request for them to act gets them more invested in the story [sunken cost fallacy]. The fact that they are seeing it first gives a sense of urgency.

    I’ve had this work twice for pieces where the press release led to nothing.

    Having done it multiple times though, it’s a ton more work than people imagine. Journalists work on very fast timescales, and often will initially be interested, but drop the story. They can drop it because something more newsworthy happens, or because they pitch it to an editor who doesn’t think it’s a good enough story, or they could request a lot of info and then just never reply once you talk to them. I honestly wouldn’t recommend it for most people and most research pieces.

  3. I think the ‘why bother?’ messaging is misleading, and implies that science operates separately from the rest of society. Science must be communicated, it’s up to the individual researcher to find an outlet and audience that suits them best and that they feel most comfortable with. Not all outlets or audiences are the best match for all science, or all researchers, e.g. outlets like The Conversation are probably a better fit for researchers new to non-academic comms than appearing on primetime television. Also, the key point of broader science communication is about finding the story within your research that’s interesting or relevant to non-specialist audiences. If you’re going to share with news media, it needs to be ‘currently’ relevant. (And, no a preprint is not necessarily currently relevant!) Not all research has this story, or it can be harder to explain the relevance to society, so more specialist science media might be a better option.

    • To clarify, by “why bother?”, I did not mean “why should any scientist ever bother communicating with anyone in the rest of society?” I meant “why bother reaching out to reporters yourself to try to get them to write up your work, when there might well be better options for reaching whatever audience you ought to be trying to reach?” I actually agree with everything you said!

  4. We are absolutely not allowed to reach out to the media ourselves. If our media team decides our research is interesting enough, they will promote it. Otherwise, the only thing we can do is to tweet about it or otherwise promote it (passively) on social media. Unfortunately our media team seems more interested in some researchers than others.

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