How to Cover a Scientific Meeting

The How to Cover a Scientific Meeting session drew a standing-room only crowd, with participants lining the walls and sitting on the floors as four consummate professionals held forth on everything from the imminently practical ("Read the program" and "Eat breakfast") to pointers on schmoozing researchers to slick tips on how to capture elusive details to entice picky editors.

Meeting coverage is the lifeblood of science writing, moderator Jeanne Erdmann told session participants at the outset. Tom Siegfried set the tone for the session with a presentation full of solid advice on the basics of meeting coverage. Prepare, get good digital, and wear comfortable shoes, he advised. He also warned about wasting time, suggesting that writers identify goals, be choosy, and milk receptions for the networking opportunities as well as the free food.

Dan Ferber offered tips on finding and writing magazine features, starting with defining goals based on the magazine and its style. Some excellent points were calling the session chairs in advance or catching them before the session to ask them about new and exciting research that might or might not be part of the program. "Stay to the end," Ferber said. "Unlike us, scientists save their best for last." And don't underestimate the importance of schmoozing. "You always learn things out you'd never learn from the program." Oh, and keep an eye out for character.

Lynne Lamberg gave us the skinny on beat reporting and how to get an edge. Some societies (APA, AAAS) accept NASW as press credentials. Another good tip was searching for authors on PubMed, then e-mailing them before the meeting. Her advice to, " Eat breakfast. Eat lunch. Eat dinner. See the city," gave us a chuckle, but was some of the best advice given.

Like the others, she stressed advance work and suggested writing the whole story, or at least the lede, ASAP. Exhibits can offer more than the free pens, she said. "There are good sources here and you can get a good sense of where the science is headed from industry."

Lastly, David Brown provided tools on how to manage expectations to avoid overwriting and hype. Beware subtle manipulation, he said, offering practical advice on how to seek the real news and set aside preconceived notions.

The session closed with a lively Q&A, providing an excellent forum for attendees and panelists to interact — if only there were more time.

Leslie Sabbagh is contributing editor for science for Popular Mechanics. A freelance journalist, she covers medicine, the military, and aerospace.

Oct. 27, 2006

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