Jay Pasachoff, Chair of the International Astronomical Union’s Working Group on Eclipses, is Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College and a Visitor in Planetary Science at Caltech. He has viewed 60 solar eclipses, and is an expert on both their use for scientific observations and their use for public education. Pasachoff is past president of the International Astronomical Union’s Commission on Education and Development and Chair of the Historical Astronomy Division of the American Astronomical Society. He received the Education Prize of the American Astronomical Society and, last year, the Janssen Prize of the Société Astronomique de France. Pasachoff is the author or co-author of The Cosmos: Astronomy in the New Millennium, the Peterson Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, and Nearest Star: The Surprising Science of Our Sun as well as, on a more technical level, The Solar Corona.
So you are a scientist or press officer and you’d like to get something covered. Where to begin?
I shape news. Specifically, health-related news. I work for a major media organization. I’ve worked for major media organizations in New York and internationally most of my career.
Every day I come into work and help direct what articles will be written and where they will be placed. A large bulk of what’s commissioned or picked up is planned far in advance. We can guess fairly well which stories are going to trend and when: cold and flu season revs up in February; allergies hit the Northeast United States in late April.
We also cover more topical, breaking stories – the kind you couldn’t see coming. These might include a family in Denver adopting a kitten with rabies that consequently infected the whole family. Or how a pediatrician in Detroit refused to care for a child with lesbian parents.
There’s a third type of story that we cover too, the kind researchers often want us to publish. We often find out about those from press releases or direct media outreach.
Those last types of stories – the ones presented to the mainstream media to be considered for coverage – are often the hardest to sift through. This is partly because there is such a huge volume of them regularly being pitched at us. It is also because there’s a whole industry of highly skilled public relations experts pitching them. To borrow an expression from the statistician Nate Silver, how do we separate the signal from the noise? How do we determine what stories should be covered and what should be ignored? This is where good storytelling comes into play.
There is no universal methodology for news media picking stories. It can come down to a whole slew of factors including precedent, business intelligence and leadership, which are all organization-specific. But often what carries the most weight is people’s personal editorial discretion. Connect a potential story to an editor personally and you’ll be a heck of a lot closer to getting that editor to want to connect it with his or her audience.
It turns out that a good news story is often just a good story, period. It usually has the same elements. There is a conflict or problem established. People’s lives are affected or changed. Perhaps there’s an injustice or an illness that personally touches, or we have someone close to us who is affected. There’s often a solution, or at least an inroad toward one. If that solution is novel or surprising, all the better.
Good storytelling is essential to people – including news media professionals – caring, retaining and sharing. In most cases people click through directly to individual stories through search or a referral. Contrary to what most people probably assume, for most of mainstream media, the homepage is irrelevant as a traffic driver. The vast majority of traffic bypasses homepages and goes directly to individual stories. People find those stories by actively typing a topic into a search engine. They also find stories through curators like Yahoo! News and the Drudge Report, or curation-platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Essential to having a story go viral – which is most often the goal these days – it must connect with people. People must care, retain and then share the story. If people care enough to share a story, the odds are other people will find that story interesting, and worthy of sharing. This happens offline just as much as online.
So the next time you want to get research covered, or make sure your latest discovery makes the news, using storytelling can be key. After all, I can assure you as a media professional that the hype is not true – we are, indeed, people too.
Dennis Petrone is a senior manager at CBS Local Media in New York. The views expressed in this post are his own and not the opinion or position of CBS Corporation. He can be found through http://dennispetrone.com/
Fausto Martin De Sanctis reflects on his own past and the need to find one’s balance in order to use research and science for improving mankind.
I became a judge, at the age of 25, early after being a public defender for one year and two months. I remember sitting in the hearing room and an attorney came to me and asked: “Could you call the judge, sir?” I immediately replied: “Yes, you are talking to him.”
This made me realize that usually peoples’ expectations about what a judge looks like is different from reality. With such little life experience, I was afraid of committing unintentional judicial mistakes. Being a judge too young was a personal decision, a challenge for one who always lived unhappily with inequities. As a young judge, I traveled to France for a one month French language program in Amboise. I stayed in a traditional French family who were wonderful hosts. The husband and wife, a doctor and painter respectively, had a 14 year-old son. We all got along really well and had much fun. Sometimes when I was not attending the program, the son would try to embarrass me by leaving the house and ringing the bell of another house, running away, and leaving me to apologize for his “bad” behavior, a really uncomfortable situation.
Although I had some amazing times with the family, I was surrounded by tensions and anxieties. It was a dramatic moment when I realized I had to reconcile the challenges of my new career with my level of life-experience. I was even more self-critical trying to do my best.
I soon realized that learning kept me balanced and allowed me to become more fully aware of real life. Learning also was continuous; I could keep to date with changes in the law and new doctrines. So seeking answers through knowledge made me more confident.
I was trying to surpass this initial state of uncertainty by transforming my ways of acting and thinking in a reasonable way. Little by little, I became committed to research as a means of preparing myself for new challenges. This commitment made me behave with an active attitude. I was a creature that could rely on science as as a means to permanent improvement: science and I made the perfect match.
Science was absorbing me, my soul, and gave me the basis to act as a judge based on a better doctrine, not only jurisprudence. As time went by, I gained in reputation, credibility and legitimacy to the point that when I was leaving the trial Court for a promotion to the Federal Appellate Court, defendants came to me on two different occasions and expressed their disappointment because I wouldn’t be able to rule their cases anymore. This, I can say, was one of the best moments of my judicial career. I was being acknowledged from the people who would be judged by me.
Research is a tool to understand and shape society, which can be identified with the help of science. Research, by investigating and questioning life, like art, defines humans. It is both heritage and history, and involves aesthetics, feelings, imagination and achievement. Certain knowledge is required to understand the world, past, present and future.
Many times, I tried to prioritize my personal life such as family, religion, and home. However, I was conscious that I also had to think about my career to get a balanced life. We cannot focus on one side and forget the other.
Deep-down I knew the responsibility of searching for constant self-improvement could help me find the peace of mind that I needed. I always knew that this is not a done dish but something that is constant. It requires day-to-day reflection research as well as observing life. That is an essential task for every day.
I know it is not an easy job. We are sometimes tempted to escape or rebel against everything that defies our normal comfort zone due to common high levels of stress. Being impulsive impels us to thoughtless actions or misplaced complaints. In order to live a wonderful and rich life, I spend everyday trying to be the protagonist with the goal of making things better.
As a judge, I could easily believe that my line of work means we are omnipotent, superior and invulnerable, but I knew that this belief would take me to a life of solitude, with sadness, emptiness and hassles. Hence it is important to renounce constantly our own caprices.
Investigating and questioning the values in our world is an ongoing requirement of being a judge. You have to make a decision to best serve society. Life without this is less meaningful.
We know that mirror reflects light. It is not the light. It’s just a reflector. If there is no obstacle all light will be reflected. But what is light if not values and knowledge we can infer and even acquire? Acknowledging the need for society to improve is already a big step. Like a mirror, we must allow all light to flow, through our voice, which address the values for a better life.
In presenting this single story, I have strived to bring out my constant, daily concern in these modern times, times that force us to take action—action other than the quest for some sort of abstract happiness that finds its expression in derision or the misfortune of another. Welfare is itself a form of heritage to be sought by all. We should take action to help one another and to do good deeds, even if small, to make the world a better place. This is not a small task but a vast and ongoing human endeavor. I believe that research is an important tool that can really advance the progress of mankind.