Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Where does astronomy news come from?

How does science turn into news? Maybe, like me, you wonder about this a lot. Maybe you don't. The truth is, before I went to journalism school, I didn't really think about things like how news gets to be news, or why some things are considered news and others aren't. Now I think about these questions constantly.

The process of some thing - an event, a person, a scientific journal article - turning into news is simultaneously arbitrary and systematic. Some things are obviously newsworthy: They just have that "thing," you know it when you see it, etc. Most breaking news would fall in this category. Burning buildings are kinda hard to ignore. But most things are more ambiguous.

There are lots of players in the game of news-making at AAS: reporters, editors, press officers and scientists are the main ones.

Here is roughly how things work here at the AAS meeting. There is a press office at the conference. It's right next door to a room where press conferences take place, on a separate floor from the rest of the AAS meeting. There is also a "quiet room" journalists can reserve to do broadcast (TV, radio, podcast) interviews. The press area is basically disconnected from the sessions, plenary talks, and exhibit halls full of posters. In fact, you could just hang out in the press office and the press conference room and you wouldn't even realize that there are thousands upon thousands of astronomers upstairs giving talks and standing by posters and drinking coffee and shmoozing. I'm guessing most journalists venture upstairs at some point, though. I bet the best ones have astronomer buddies they hang out with.

When I checked in and got my press credentials, I got a conference program (just like all the conference attendees get) that lists all the talks and posters - there are hundreds of those.* In addition, I got a "press kit." This is basically just a printed out schedule of press conferences and talks/posters that the AAS press office (they have their own public information people) thinks journalists might find interesting.

The press office is a room with three king-size-bed shaped tabled lined up. The tables are covered with white tablecloths. On top of the tables are bowls of hard-candies, bottles of water, conference programs, notepads, surge-protectors and ethernet cables. When I walked into the press office at 9:45 on Monday morning, 15 minutes before the first press conference started, the room was packed. There was barely an open seat at the big white table. Everyone was sitting at their computers, mostly Apples.

I feel really awkward in the press office because there are people here from TIME magazine, MSNBC, the New York Times, National Geographic News, Science News, Scientific American and other big-deal publications.

The press office has a table with coffee in the back. It also has a coat-rack. The schedule of press conferences and all of the press-releases that have come out are pegged to the back wall. Each registered member of the press has a mailbox where we get hard-copies of the press releases as they come out.

I guess I should tell you a little bit about press-releases. I signed up for an AAS press e-mail list right before the conference. Because I am on that list, I get 5 to 10 press releases every day from various organizations like NASA and big research universities. Those organizations send them to AAS's press officer who forwards them on to us. Some press releases come with an embargo. This means that, although I can read them as soon as I get them, I can't write about anything in them until a specified date and time - often the embargo date will be an imminent press conference or when an accepted paper will go up on a journal's website. For some announcements, we don't actually receive the press release until during the press conference. I found this a bit weird, but maybe this is just the way things work.

What is the difference between a press-release an popular media article on a scientific finding? Not really that much. Press-releases are written by public information officers at universities and research centers, whereas popular media articles are written by professional "independent" journalists. A lot of former journalists have no gotten jobs as public information officers, though, so the distinction is kinda fuzzy. (I might piss off a lot of people by saying that, though.)

Is there really much difference between the abstract at the front of the journal article, the press-release, and the article that ends up in a mainstream media outlet? There might not be much of a difference in content, but that as you go through that progression from academic journal to press release to mainstream press, things get funneled down. For all the things that get published in scientific journals, only some of them get press releases. And for all the press releases science journalists get, only some of those actually end up as mainstream articles.

Anyway, back to what is actually happening here at the AAS meeting.

Press conferences are weirdly fascinating. There are three each day of the AAS meeting and they are staggered (i.e., one at 10 am, one at 12:45 pm, one at 2:30 pm). It seems like they are set up like concerts, where there is a line-up of scientists whose announcements go chronologically in order from the "opening act" to the "big deal." Each scientist speaks for roughly 10 minutes. Sometimes, there are also people who are there just to comment on whatever was announced and drop memorable quotes.

Most of the scientists in the press conferences are really good about giving context to their findings. They  do a great job of saying "this is why you should care" and "this is how we figured this out." Some of them also are clearly focusing on story-telling and are good at presenting a narrative arc, a compelling image/metaphor or a memorable quote. This makes things a little bit for exciting for someone like me who has almost no knowledge of astronomy. Many of these talks are jargon-toned-down versions of talks and posters happening in the "real conference" upstairs.

At the end of all the presentations, the floor is opened to questions. First, people int he room get to ask questions, then people who are watching a live feed of the conference online. Generally, it is the same three or four people who ask questions at every press conference. And generally, they sit in the front of the room. After about 10 minutes of questions, the scientists stick around and journalists can go up and talk to them one-on-one.

And that's about it. But not all news comes from press officers, press-releases and press conferences. Compared to a lot of other types of journalism, covering a conference like the AAS meeting feels like being spoon-fed processed food. Only the food is news. It's kind of a weird feeling. But maybe other conferences operate differently - honestly, I have no idea.

The most interesting stories, I think, come from journalists who stumble across things and make their own connections and find interesting scientists to talk to. This AAS meeting is probably a really good place to do that, especially since the astronomers I know who are here say that it's really not all about the talks or the posters, it's about astronomers getting to hang out with each other and party and network and whatnot.

*This conference is HUGE. It has several thousand attendees. Each day there are hundreds of talks, and a lot of them are going on simultaneously. There is a giant exhibition hall filled with posters, and the posters change each day. It is a general conference, so for ALL types of astronomy which includes dozens of sub-fields, everything from cosmology (origins of the universe) to astronomy education.

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