What discoveries are worthy of a press release? [Ask Astrobetter]

by Jane on August 1, 2012

What sorts of discoveries do y’all think are worth writing a press release?

Sometimes it’s obvious — an earth-mass planet in the habitable zone with spectral signatures of water and chlorine (sorry, watching too much Olympic swimming). But what about most of the time? What rises to the level of a press release? Just pretty pictures, or  a really easy-to-explain result, or anything you think is scientifically really important? How do you judge?

(And if your answer is, “Anything I discover the year before I’m on the job market, no matter how insignificant”, I will go see if python understands “import atomic_wedgie”.)

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Chris Lintott August 1, 2012 at 9:28 am

If you have a result you’re proud of, which you can explain in a few sentences or which has a great picture, and it’s been published, then I don’t see the harm in seeing what your University press officer has to say. They vary in quality – I’ve met some fabulous and some useless ones – but they should be able to give you a steer on whether the story is likely to get any press. Make sure you get to sign off on the release, though – about the only thing that can go wrong is if someone who doesn’t understand the story takes it upon themselves to rewrite without checking with the experts whose name is on the story. At its best, this is an incredibly time-efficient form of outreach – why wait to be asked?

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2 Benne Holwerda August 1, 2012 at 9:35 am

Anything that provides a good narrative. A element of new is already a prerequisite for the scientific paper (which better be accepted) but for public consumption, it needs to have a good (almost instant) narrative (which may have nothing to do with the main scientific result, i.e. remember the “color of the Universe”? It had next to nothing to do with the actual scientific result.

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3 Aleks August 1, 2012 at 9:37 am

I agree with Chris – there is no real lower boundary in significance. My main criterion would be that it can be explained in an interesting way to the public, but that should ideally apply to all projects. Some findings are scientifically not very significant, but can be particularly suitable for a public press release, just because it is in some sense cool (for example, because it contains a great picture).

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4 Jane Rigby August 1, 2012 at 9:55 am

Duvel’s advocate: What about the danger of confusing the public? I seem to recall a time when the black hole at the center of our galaxy was discovered about every year for several years. Not to mention the black holes in our neighboring galaxies.

And what about confusing health news — I think people have gotten so many conflicting messages about cholesterol that they’ve stopped paying attention.

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5 Bill Keel August 1, 2012 at 10:25 am

I was going to say what Chris and Benne said, but they got there first and I’ve done press releases with both of them. You may have to resign yourself to the message getting out that something or other has astronomers excited and maybe getting a memorable image out before the public. That and getting questions from Astro 101 students who heard something on CNN and want you to tell them what it was.

I still remember the decade-long string of announcements of the first evidence of an extrasolar planet. It may help to decide that “first” is seldom really appropriate except in such a highly qualified sense that it sounds even less newsworthy.

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6 Carolyn Brinkworth August 1, 2012 at 11:56 am

Before I start, everything I’m about to say should be taken as my own opinion, and not interpreted as any kind of official IPAC policy. I’m not the primary press contact, and everything below is based on my observations, nothing more.

Usually at Spitzer/IPAC we’re looking at your result for an “-est” – i.e. furthest, biggest, smallest, fastest, swirliest, earthiest…….wait. You get the idea. Ultimately, though, it needs to be something we can write up to be interesting to your parents. When you submit a story to us, the first thing we do is send you a document for you to fill in, so we can “find the news”. Basically, while we’re reading your paper, we ask you to write us a brief review of the background of the field (we’re PhD astronomers, but not necessarily in whatever you’re working on), a description of how your result changes the field, and how you would explain this result to a 12-yr-old kid. If we can find a “hook” in there, we’ll usually run with it, either as a press release if it’s easily explained, or as a feature story on our website if it needs a slightly more technical explanation.

As a PSA, the most important thing you can do is give us time. If you tell us about a ridiculously cool result a week before your paper is due to be published, there’s nothing we can do. You should submit to us at the same time you submit to the journal. Please note that anything submitted to us is held in the strictest, hermetically-sealed confidence, so there’s no reason to wait. This also goes to Chris’ point about not waiting to be asked. If we see your result through the same channels as everyone else then it’s already too late – press releases need to be issued concurrently with the paper. If the paper is out, we have no release.

To address Chris’ other point about sign-off, we will never release anything that hasn’t been signed off by the PI / designated contact. To address Jane’s question, our press officer has a pretty good idea when we’ve reached saturation on a story. Unfortunately, if someone has already announced something (even if it later turns out to be a wrong result) it makes it far harder to do a release on a (more secure) follow-up to the same story.

Finally, if you submit something to us and we decide not to issue a release, please don’t be offended. It doesn’t mean your science isn’t cool, it just means it’s too complicated to explain to your granny in 300 words or less.

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7 Carolyn Brinkworth August 1, 2012 at 12:16 pm

Fewer, dammit!! 300 words or fewer.

8 Jessica Lu August 2, 2012 at 6:21 pm

Thanks for the details Carolyn. I think this will give astronomers some great insight into a “press office”. Especially younger astronomers who may not have thought about press releases for their own results… think again!

9 Chris Lintott August 2, 2012 at 6:46 am

One other note – there is some evidence that press coverage enhances citation rates, for those who care about such things. The best of the studies is this fabulous medical paper from 1991 : http://www.nejm.org/doi/pdf/10.1056/NEJM199110173251620

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10 Katy Garmany August 2, 2012 at 11:34 pm

I became the press officer at NOAO about a year ago. I was stunned to discover that the AAS sends out an average of 3 press releases per day! Their distribution list include over 1700 reporters and other interested parties, and it is a great service. But think about that: 3 releases, every day – including multiple ones for some papers/ results.

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11 Kelle August 6, 2012 at 1:15 am

Wait, how does that work?!? How does the AAS Press Office go about finding 3 releases per day? Are they solicited or submitted? Why would someone choose to go through the AAS Press Office instead of their home institution’s Communication Office? Or do people do both? So many questions!! (Rick, are you here?)

12 Rick Fienberg August 6, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Yes, I’m here (thanks to your alerting me with a tweet to @AAS_Press)! Press releases are sent to the AAS by universities, NASA centers, observatories, etc., around the world. We forward them to our mailing list, which is global and, usually, much larger than the list any particular institution maintains. In other words, the AAS acts as an “amplifier.” I recently posted an item on the AAS website entitled “What Makes an Astronomy Story Newsworthy?” (http://aas.org/press/newsworthy) Check it out and give me some more feedback (what’s already on this thread is very interesting and useful — thanks!).

Rick Fienberg, AAS Press Officer

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13 Carolyn Brinkworth August 6, 2012 at 11:25 pm

Really great article, Rick – I love it!

14 Chris Lintott August 6, 2012 at 3:18 pm

As someone on both sides of the process, it’s worth noting that the AAS list is essential in reaching specialist reporters rather than just local or national generalists. As a recipient, I can confirm that it’s value is in the fact that it’s almost comprehensive – I know a story will be there.

Rick can correct me, but it’s important to realise that AAS doesn’t act as a filter – as long as the release comes from a reputable institution (not an individual) then it gets forwarded.

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15 Rick Fienberg August 7, 2012 at 10:57 am

Minor correction (clarification, really) to Chris Lintott’s comment: We do filter press releases to a certain extent. Here’s what we tell the public-information officers who send us releases: “We distribute press releases on scientific discoveries, project milestones, major appointments and awards, and widely visible sky phenomena. We forward conference announcements only if we think they are germane and if journalists are offered complimentary registration. We usually don’t distribute releases on astronomy-related education and outreach projects — not because we don’t like them (we do!), but because very few journalists on the AAS Press List have education or outreach on their beat. Sometimes we’ll ‘tweet’ the headline and URL of a release that we don’t forward by email (our Twitter handle is AAS_Press), so even if you’re not certain we’ll forward what you send us, if it’s related to astronomy, go ahead and send it.” Of course, by “scientific” discoveries we mean discoveries in astronomy, planetary science, and related fields, not in other sciences. My predecessor as AAS Press Officer, Steve Maran, launched the AAS press-release-distribution service more than 20 years ago, and science journalists with astronomy on their beat tell us it’s a vital resource, some going so far as to say they couldn’t live without it!

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