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Emily LakdawallaJuly 8, 2010

Where my stories come from

The stories I write about originate in space, of course, but as I was wrestling with what to write about in the couple of weeks before my vacation, it occurred to me that a lot of you might not know what tends to trigger space writers to choose what to write about.

Most space news is driven by press releases. What's a press release exactly? Most institutions, public and private, from NASA to universities to think tanks, have a public information office staffed by people (many of them journalists or writers by training) whose job it is to identify possible stories generated by the researchers who work at those institutions. Things that trigger stories are events like launches, landings, and flybys, as well as the publication of research in a peer-reviewed journal such as Icarus, one issue of which I covered here.

Scientists can -- and should!! -- suggest stories to the public information officers, but it's the officers' job to decide which ones are suitable for formal release to the media. Once the public information officer has identified a story that they think will hook interest in mainstream and specialized media, they work with the researcher to draft a press release, what is essentially a brief article about the story, plus some text (usually the same in every release) about the institution generating the story. The press release gives the main facts with more or less detail, usually contains several statements in quotes from the researcher involved, and may be accompanied by captioned pictures and/or links to websites with further information.

Once everybody has signed off on the release, and any embargoes have been lifted (peer-reviewed journals do not want people talking about papers until they are actually printed and available from the publisher), the public information officer issues the press release to the world. It's not just a matter of posting it to their website; they actively seek interest by emailing it directly to their own mailing lists of journalists and newsrooms. They also send it to a couple of organizations that collect such press releases and distribute them to their own lists of journalists and bloggers for their consideration. Actually, some institutions, like NASA and ESA, don't require you to be a journalist to receive these things; you can sign up for their press release mailing lists on their websites. Thus these stories just arrive in my inbox, a handful or up to a dozen a day, without requiring any effort from me to seek out topics to write about.

So these public information offices do a real service for working writers; they do the hard work of interpreting the academic subject for the public, they provide pictures, and they even provide quotes. Since the people writing the press releases usually have journalism (or at least writing) training themselves, press releases are often pretty much ready to go as news stories as is, with no further work by a space writer. There are lots of sites out there on the Web (and print media too) that just repost press releases and leave it at that.

Of course, there is a problem with that; the story hasn't been investigated, and any press release necessarily fails to capture some of the subtler details in a story. At their worst, press releases can mislead the public by glossing over negative or equivocal results or criticisms of the work. So writers who are willing to work a little harder will identify interesting stories from the press releases but will follow up by interviewing some of the scientists involved, or maybe even some scientists who are not involved in the study (for a reality check); a few follow up by reading the original academic paper that inspired the release in the first place, and they craft a story that is much better-researched (and which may differ substantially from the original release).

I like press releases because they make my work easier. But, from my point of view, there are two problems with writing stories in response to press releases. One is that there is so much other interesting research being done and presented at conferences and published in peer-reviewed journals that never gets the full press release treatment, so gets mostly ignored. (A corollary to this first problem is the fact that foreign institutions do not tend to have the connections to English-language media that domestic institutions do, so foreign missions and publications, especially ones originating from China, India, and Japan, but to a lesser extent Europe too, are chronically underreported in English-language media.)

My second problem with writing about what has been press-released is that I have always hated doing what everyone else is doing. When there is a press release that is particularly sensational, like the recent one that generated buzz about life on Titan, my natural urge is to stay far, far away. Everyone else will be writing about it; I don't feel like I have anything unique to add, and would prefer to make the effort to research and write about something that you readers can't find anywhere else. Of course, stories that are press-released are usually chosen for release because they are both interesting and important, so despite my urge to be different I do plenty of writing about stuff that has been press-released.

In the week or two before I went on vacation, there was a veritable onslaught of press releases on topics I found interesting. It was frustrating to let all that news pass by, but I knew that there was virtually no writing being done on the Hayabusa and IKAROS missions and figured my efforts would be most valuable -- and most distinct from the other excellent space blogs -- if I focused on those two developing stories. In any case, working only half time, I have no hope of getting to all the press-released stories anyway, not and actually do a good job of researching them. Frankly, even if I were working full-time it wouldn't be enough. (I am convinced that Universe Today has three different writers named Nancy Atkinson because I have no idea how one person can write as much as she does.)

I'd be curious to have comments from readers regarding this issue -- would you like me to spend more of my limited time researching and producing my own take on stories that get press-released and covered by other blogs? Or would you prefer I continue to do more digging into mission websites and data archives and conference abstracts and peer-reviewed journals to find stuff that's unique and not reported elsewhere, but which is usually not as sensational as the stuff that gets covered in press releases? I can't do it all!

Read more: about science writing

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
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