Why your research is (not) hitting the media

So, why is your scientific breakthrough not hitting the news? After all, you did your best: you found a clever angle, reached out to your home press office, wrote a clear press release and have been available for contact the entire time. Why, then, has no one gotten in touch with you? Let’s talk about news values.

A nose for news

Journalists have a nose for news. Or that is what they like to believe. In reality, knowingly or not, they work according to a specific set of news values, against which they test every news item. If your research conforms to those values, your story’s chances of being picked up by the media grow tremendously.

So of course it makes sense to know what those news values are. These are the most important ones:

  • Reach: how ‘big’ is the news? The more people are affected by your news, the more newsworthy it will be. A breakthrough in cancer research will have a better shot at making the headlines than one in ALS research, simply because there are more cases of cancer.
  • Intensity: how easy will you see results? When Facebook adds a set of emojis to its Like button, this is world news. When you bring a new electron microscope into your lab, however, no one will take notice. Those Facebook buttons just stand out to people.
  • Results: how important are the results of your research? CRISPR-CAS is more likely to hit the news than a new way to purify water.
  • Celebrities: linking a celebrity to your research will immediately up the chances of it hitting the media. No wonder that plenty of good causes have a celebrity backing them.
  • Local news: the closer (geographically) the news is to the target audience of the newspaper/TV channel, the more likely that it will be published. Did you perform a test in a certain city? Whereas local media will happily bring this into the spotlight, the national media will likely be far less excited.
  • Timelessness: does your news need to be published today? If your item can be launched at any given moment really, chances are it will not happen at all. This is often detrimental to any scientific news, as newspapers know they can just as well publish a scientific news item tomorrow or even next week.
  • Novelty: how novel is your topic? The newer, the better.
  • Human interest: are people involved, or could you add a human aspect? Media like people news.

Examples

Knowing this, let’s take a closer look at some examples.

Climate research

The topic of climate research will hit the media from time to time, but its news value is generally quite low. What is behind this?

  • Intensity: you hardly notice the results because change only happens gradually. There is no sudden shock.
  • Local news: it is a worldwide problem.
  • Timelessness: you could very well bring the news item tomorrow, or even next week. The climate is not going anywhere.
  • Novelty: we have been discussing the problem for decades. The problem is far from new.
  • Reach: true, many people are affected by climate changes, but those people don’t always want to accept the reality of this. Many people would much rather ignore the problem. With that in mind, significantly fewer people are affected.

So when will the climate hit the news? When the subject actually abides by the news values. Such as:

  • Celebrities: when a celebrity such as Leonardo DiCaprio speaks out about it, or makes it the topic of a new movie.
  • Intensity: when we suddenly notice the consequences, because it is the tenth year in a row with a heat record.
  • Timelessness: when there is an important conference happening, such as the Paris climate summit, any relevant news must be published today and not a day later. Or when the United States withdraw from the Paris treaty.

Artificial intelligence

How come the topic of artificial intelligence is pretty much all over the news?

  • Celebrities: people such as Elon Musk or Stephen Hawking often bring up the topic.
  • Effects: the possible effects on our society are substantial and a ‘robots will soon take over our world’-story is always a popular read.
  • Human interest: automation will cost people their jobs.
  • Reach: when Facebook develops new algorithms, this affects just about half of the world population.
  • Novelty: robots will often do innovative or impressive things, such as defeat the world champion Go in a game of Go.

Test tube hamburger

Take a look at the story of researcher Mark Post who made headlines with his test tube hamburger. News values such as celebrities, novelty and reach immediately make it into a home run.

Only news values?

Of course you don’t need to check off each and every news value. But the more that are applied, the better. A different approach is to define which news values are working to your disadvantage, and then try to eliminate those.

Scientific news is often pushed aside by news that hits more news values. Want to see your research in the news, then play the game. Good luck!

P.S. Not only news values, but also ‘pure luck’ plays an important role. This, however, cannot be influenced. 🙂

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