Reporting from science conferences

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Conferences can provide good news stories if you plan ahead, do your research, and mingle with the delegates, says K. S. Jayaraman.

Academic journals tend to be the primary source of news for science reporters because that is where researchers usually publish their findings. But an alternative source particularly for background information or advance notice of future stories is the meetings and conferences that scientists and their associations organise to share results and exchange information about their research projects.

Do not expect to get ‘scoops’ at conferences, or even major science news stories. They are rarely the forum for announcing breakthrough discoveries.

But even if they don’t generate immediate news stories, conferences are places where you can renew contacts with old sources and strike friendships with new ones — personal contacts are the third best source for science news.

They provide the opportunity to meet and interview top scientists face-to-face. And news or no news, conferences provide the educational experience a science reporter constantly needs to stay informed and up to date.

All shapes and sizes

Reporting from such conferences comes with its own challenges, and there are various techniques that can be used before, during and after a conference to maximise the impact of your reporting.

Keep a calendar of forthcoming events by checking websites, such as EurekAlert and AlphaGalileo, as well as those of your country’s professional bodies, science academies and universities.

Small functions, scientists’ reunions at universities or science academies, and workshops, seminars and brainstorming sessions can be highly news-worthy, since scientists often speak more openly in such relatively private settings. Get yourself invited to these, as the chances of landing ‘scoops’ or exclusive stories are greater at less formal get-togethers than mega conferences.

But be sure to establish beforehand whether the proceedings are on or off the record, and that all participants are aware that a journalist is present.

Be prepared to attend all types of science conferences, as they all have their uses. Conferences may be local, regional or international — determined primarily by the spread of nationalities of the participants — and can come in different sizes.

Small meetings on focused topics — for example nanomaterials, stem cells or biofuel — are often easier to cover, since there tend to be fewer sessions. 

Enormous conferences like annual meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science or the American Chemical Society (in 2008, the latter was attended by 12,000 chemists and involved more than 9,000 talks and posters) require prior planning, especially if you are covering the meeting on your own.

And reporting from some meetings can be maddening. The annual week-long Indian Science Congress, for example, is more like an outing for thousands of scientists, many with families, than a scientific meeting. Getting a news story from such jamborees is more by luck than by design. But the flip side is that you can get to meet all of the country’s top science policymakers in one place.

Registration, research, reconnaissance

The secret of successful coverage of any conference — large or small — is preparation.

First, check whether you are required to register beforehand. Even as a journalist, you may not be able to just walk into some conferences. And it can often be a good idea to register because of indirect benefits, such as invitations to banquets and dinners — where you can meet the speakers — or a seat in a special bus for a site visit.

If you’re staying in a hotel for the duration of a conference, choose if possible to stay in the same hotel as delegates, as this increases your chances of bumping into people you may want to interview.

Don’t go to a conference without a list of stories that you hope to get out of it. Keep the list small, but be sure to include any controversial topics — like cold fusion or transgenic crops — that may be discussed at the conference. 

Abstracts of papers, programmes and lists of speakers are usually available in advance from organisers or conference websites. 

Where this is the case, you should use these to select the topics for news coverage, and carry out background research to get an update on topics you want to cover, and formulate questions for speakers.

An enterprising reporter, with a deadline to meet, does 60 per cent of the work — and has a rough draft of the story ready — even before the scientist begins to speak.

It is also a good idea to study the profiles of the scientists delivering the key papers and contact them by phone or email to ‘book’ interviews during the conference. A star speaker will be in great demand during the conference, especially by television and radio.

Even if you are good at taking notes, a tape recorder can still be useful, as you may need exact quotes from a speaker who may, for example, be in hurry to catch a flight after their presentation, and thus unavailable to clarify remarks made during their formal presentation.

It is better to write a few well-rounded stories, with appropriate background and comments from other sources, than a lot of half-baked stories that are unlikely to make a significant impact.

During the conference

Make best use of the conference press centre. As well as organising regular press briefings — which may become the main source of your stories — the press centre usually helps reporters to arrange meetings with important speakers.

Don’t walk out immediately at the end of presentations. Question-answer sessions, and discussions that follow, often provide an angle for a story, particularly if a member of the audience raises a significant issue that the speaker has not addressed, or provokes a speaker into expressing stronger views than were contained in their talk. 

Mingle with speakers at coffee and lunch breaks, and conference dinners. These are places where you can pick up gossip and hear about controversies that may not be publicly discussed in the main lecture hall. You may also pick up informal information about new leads that researchers are pursuing, that you can follow up later.

Do not ignore the poster sessions; some may give you tips for bigger stories at a later date.

Also pay attention to views being expressed by protestors or nongovernmental organisations. Because of the potential media coverage, these frequently choose big conferences to make their views known on controversial themes such as climate change or genetically modified crops.  

Keep an eye on bulletin boards and an ear out for announcements to avoid surprises and disappointments. Unscheduled briefings, cancellation of talks, change of venues and timings are common in conferences and could upset your coverage schedule.

In big conferences, several sessions of interest may run parallel in different halls and you are likely to miss overlapping presentations. In such a situation approach the speakers in advance and try to get a copy of their presentation beforehand or fix up interviews with them after the talk.

Writing up

Tailor your news hook to your readers — national or global, scientists or general public.

Try to figure out a local angle for an international story, as it may encourage your editor to put your story in a more prominent position. For instance, the announcement of a dengue vaccine at an international conference in New Delhi will be front-page news in a local newspaper if the conference coincides with the mosquito season in Delhi. 

Including a line or two about any high profile participants will also add colour and enhance the readability of your story.

One potential hazard is the temptation to report unverified claims by scientists that would be rejected by a peer-reviewed journal. Be careful about reporting tall claims by publicity-seeking scientists, particularly if you cannot balance your story by getting comments from other participants in the conference. And emphasise, if appropriate, that the results have not yet been published and are therefore only preliminary.

Similarly, at conferences sponsored by private corporations or multinational companies, watch out for presentations that are primarily intended to promote their commercial interests, rather than containing any new or original science.

So if you love science, enjoy meeting scientists of different nationalities, want to update your knowledge, or require a crash course on a scientific subject, do not turn down an assignment to cover a science conference. They are an abundant source of story ideas for both immediate and later use.

But remember to do your homework before stepping into the conference hall, or you will feel like a rudderless boat in mid-sea.