The world of the media can seem confusing and overwhelming. But it’s good to get a better idea of why things happen the way they do.
Journalists and scientists work on very different time scales. The newsroom is a busy place where decisions are made in seconds, deadlines are constantly looming, and there are hourly or realtime updates to breaking news stories, livestreams and online content. When contacted by a journalist it is important to be aware of the time constraints they are under.
News journalists often only have a matter of hours or less to research and write a story, so you can be a big help to them by providing succinct explanations and drawing their attention to the most important aspects of a scientific story or research, which might not be obvious to a non-scientist.
TIP: Always ask how much time the journalist has to work on a story and their expectations in terms of what they want from you. It’s OK to ask for some time to review material.
A day in the life of a reporter
New Zealand Herald Science reporter Jamie Morton plots the development of stories through the day from idea to finished product…
I start my day by checking any emails that have come in overnight, and head to nzherald.co.nz, stuff.co.nz and RNZ to see what stories have been broken overnight. Then I catch up on science news, trawling through all the big international sites.
Press releases from universities or research institutes will be waiting in my inbox. Whatever turns up, via releases or news tips, I ask myself a few questions: Is it new, a world-first? Why should a reader care about it? Will it have some significant impact on their life? Or is it simply interesting or quirky enough to make the grade?
The duty chief reporter has already fired out an email to let the newsroom know they’re in the hot seat, and to tell them what’s coming. It’s time to decide which stories I’m going to focus on that day. One or two will have already jumped out at me – and I’ll already have an idea of how I’m going to approach them.
I hit the phone, lining up interviews. The key is to get quotes from key sources in the bag as early as possible. Sometimes that entails firing off questions over email, which scientists often prefer when it comes to communicating their latest research. I’ll think about photos, graphics, factboxes. Do we need them? If so, I’ll let the photography and graphics teams know early. The middle part of the day is research and writing.
The duty chief fires another email out – this time asking for “toplines”. This is a one line summary – often taken from the story’s “intro” – that gives the newsdesk an idea of what the story’s about. Having collected these, they’ll head into the 1.30 afternoon news conference for a discussion with the editors. If it is looking good, they’ll add it to the newslist for the editorial heads to consider at the later afternoon news meeting. My bosses will make suggestions or query the research. They want to make sure it’s a strong story.
For anything other than breaking news, the story – or stories – must be finished by this time. I’ll file my article in our system and it will be picked up, sub-edited, and placed on a designated page. By this point I also will have filed to our website. That involves processing the article in our content management system – writing headlines, adding and captioning pictures, slotting in links, videos and graphics, and tagging the piece to relevant sections of the website. As soon as the story goes live, I’ll tweet it out to my followers.
The final newslist is sent out to all reporters and I’ll finally be able to see what page my story is destined for. But I don’t see exactly how it will look, the layout team will work into the night. I check my inbox and science websites one last time.
My mobile phone rings – a sub-editor wants to check a fact. I talk her through it, she tweaks the sentence. The story is finally put to bed and within a couple of hours will be rolling off the presses.