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/