If you’ve been following along on the blog, you know that last week I went to the Ecological Society of America meeting in downtown Austin. It was a successful science meeting: People came, talks were given, sciencey socializing was done. But it’s a slightly different story from a press perspective, when you consider that meetings are also a time to get the word out about the science. I think my experience at the ESA demonstrates what’s wrong with the way that science organizations approach press coverage.
I had gotten an email about the meeting while I was on vacation, and then mostly forgot about it until I got back home from Seattle. It was a blog post that stirred me to get up from my chair and cover it. An ecologist attending the meeting asked, A few thousand ecologists meet in the city to discuss Earth stewardship…. but does anybody know or care? The post bemoaned the lack of coverage of the largest gathering of ecologists in North America. Indeed, when I searched Google, only 2 ESA-related press releases came up. I felt guilty. I knew! I cared! I could go out and cover this and right the wrong that journalism has done to the sciences!
I pitched KUT and quickly got an assignment. Then I turned to contacting the ESA for press credentials. The website’s press page gave the contact information for the press person who would be attending the conference. But when I emailed, I quickly received an out-of-office auto reply:
Thank you for your email. As of August 5, I am longer with the Ecological Society of America. For media inquiries, please contact Nadine Lymn, Director of Public Affairs, at email@example.com.
Very curious (and frustrating)! The meeting started on August 7 - two days after Katie’s last day. And yet, the information on the website hadn’t been corrected. I later found out (via Hayley at biocreativity) that the press officer had taken a new job three weeks before that wouldn’t allow her to attend the conference. So really, the organization had three weeks to change the press contact. And they didn’t.
I emailed the woman I was referred to, also to receive an out-of-office auto reply (she was attending the conference I was trying to go to). I eventually got a working phone number for the press room via the blog post and Twitter. Once I got in touch, everyone was very nice and helpful, and reporting the story from there was not a problem.
But what I saw bothered me. When I arrived at the press room, the spread of food normally dug into by coffee-starved reporters was seemingly untouched. Only 12 members of the press had registered at the conference, I was told (although more were covering it remotely). And when I returned after getting some audio, two self-described “media-minded” ecologists in the room treated me like a rare bird. There weren’t too many of my kind fluttering around the convention center. I also learned (again, via Hayley) that a few local science promoters had offered to help with outreach, but were essentially put off by the ESA. During the conference, I only saw two stories published about the meeting - my story, and a blog post on the nytimes.com. Of course, part of the reason for reporters to go to conferences is to get ideas for future stories. But two pieces of media is still very low, when you consider that every local media outlet could have done a story about it.
Scientists want to have their work known by the public, as evidenced by the post that compelled me to cover the meeting. But it doesn’t seem like the ESA recognized or supported that. The event is difficult to cover. There’s no short symposia (most run for hours and are often behind schedule), and it’s not open to the public. There’s little for local media outlets to be interested in. Yes, ecology is cool. But much of the public doesn’t really understand what ecology is.
I feel like there’s an expectation among science organizations that media should cover science because it’s obviously important. And it is! But unfortunately, it’s not as obvious as you would think. It takes a lot of work to get the word out, to load the bait that tells a non-science journalist, “This is interesting! Your readers would want to know about it!” And the ESA just doesn’t get that.
Many scientists and science organizations have come a long way on outreach, discovering through many, many mistakes (i.e. the nation’s perception of climate science) that they have to advocate for the legitimacy of their science. It’s a sad state of affairs compared to the pedestal science used to be on in this country, but it’s the way it is. So my message is, just try to make it easy for scientists who want to get the word out, and for the press they need to hear them.