Pitch successfully or pay
There are two main ways to get your research into the media: either you convince the journalists that your information is interesting and important enough for them to report about, or you pay for space and it goes in as an advertisement or sponsored content.
Who in the media do you need to convince?
Journalists have various roles and titles. To get media coverage you need to convince the following:
• Reporters. They collect information, package it and submit to the editor for approval and further processing. Reporters work with editors to decide what to report on. The reporter either takes an assignment from the editor or comes up with their own idea of what to report on and pitches it to the editor. Some reporters specialise on particular topics such as business, science, and entertainment while others are unspecialised (general) reporters. It is more rewarding for scientists to find and work with journalists who specialise in covering sciences because they are more likely to appreciate the issues and report accurately.
• Editors. They plan, guide reporters, make decisions on what to publish and take responsibility for what is published. Every section or segment has an editor, though some editors handle more than one section. Some media outlets have science sections and science editors. Those who don’t have science editors may still publish science information in the available sections such as news or features.
• Programme producer (electronic media). Like editors they plan, make decisions and take responsibility for what they produce. They may be in charge of programmes such as talk-shows and documentaries.
These roles may overlap, for example some journalists work both as editors and reporters.
Reporters vs editors
So who is the person to approach and convince? Ultimately the editor or producer is the person to convince because they make decisions on what to publish. One way is to convince the editor or producer and they will then assign a reporter to work with you. The downside is that editors are busier and harder to catch. Besides, you may not successfully influence the editor to give the assignment to the reporter you prefer to work with.
The alternative is to pitch the idea to a reporter, who then presents the idea to their editor. A good reporter would be likely to convince the editor that a story is worth spending time and energy on. In this case you get to work with your preferred reporter but there is a risk that the reporter could fail to convince the editor especially if the story doesn’t have a striking revelation.
From ideas to stories
In journalism an article for publication or an item for broadcast is called a story. It may be a news item, feature article, documentary or any other format that is appropriate for the media outlet.
Some stories just happen and the media report them, for example a volcanic eruption. Others are initiated by journalists, for example a reporter may want to find out how Ebola survivors are coping one year after an outbreak and then report on it. Yet other stories are conceived outside the media outlet, for example a press release on research findings or any other announcement.
What does this all mean to a scientist? It means you have an opportunity to influence what journalists report on. Journalists are continually looking for stories worth reporting – give them an interesting story idea and they will take it. If they ignore your story, it means either what you are presenting to them is not newsworthy or you have not presented it to them convincingly.
So, what do journalists want? Why do they pay attention to some issues and not others?
What journalists want
• Newsworthy information to give them a fresh story
• Informed views to enrich a story they are working on
• Quick response to enable them beat deadlines
Pitching to the media
You may have great research findings but journalists might not know the significance until you present the story your research tells to them clearly, concisely and convincingly. The process of presenting a story idea to an editor or reporter for consideration is referred to as pitching.
Whether you pitch by email, phone, face-to-face or in a social media messaging app, it has to be brief, newsworthy and straight to the point.
Pitch or press release?
You may wonder, why would a scientist or communication specialist bother to pitch anything to the media instead of simply writing a press release? In writing a press release you compose one message, usually in several hundred words, that goes out to all media outlets. A press release on research findings usually provides much of the information that a journalist needs for a basic story; it answers the 5W and H questions as follows:
• Who did the research?
• What did they discover?
• When did they publish it?
• Where did they publish the findings?
• Why do the findings matter?
• How did they do the research?
On the other hand in pitching you may not have time and space to answer all these 5Ws and H. You want to quickly grab the attention of a busy editor. A pitch, therefore, has a much shorter and more personalised message to quickly get the editor’s attention and then you can provide them with additional information.
That said, pitching and writing a press release are not mutually exclusive. You can write a pitch in the body of an email and attach a press release.
Alternatively you might decide to pitch just to a few media outlets that matter to you most, in which case you might not need a press release.
Personalise the pitch
A message addressing the journalist by name and explaining why your research findings would be of interest to them is likely to catch the journalist’s attention better than a generic message emailed to hundreds of media outlets. Besides, personalising the information helps you to make a fruitful connection with the journalist.
Therefore, you need to know the media outlet well, including the sections or segments where your information might be placed and the editors, producers or reporters handling them. Do not try to pitch to an editor whose section or segment you have never read or viewed.
Editors are more likely to listen to you if they know you are their reader, viewer or listener. In any case, you can only know where your information fits within a particular media outlet if you know its structure.
Therefore, you need to do your homework. For example, if you are targeting a TV channel, find out whether they have a news bulletin, what the times are, what kind of people watch it and who the editor is.
Begin by looking at their weekly programme line-up. What times are their news bulletins? Do they have other programmes where your research can be presented or discussed? For example do they have science programmes? Do they have talk-shows or current affairs programmes where a scientific development can be discussed from a policy or society perspective? Read more about the media outlet from their website. If you still have unanswered questions, approach the media outlet; their front desk, marketing teams or the journalists will most likely be happy to tell you about their media outlet.
Is your story newsworthy?
Before approaching journalists you should have an idea on whether your information can make news. In other words, is it something interesting enough for the general public to want to read or watch in the news? Is the information engaging enough to draw someone’s attention from their cup of icecream? If you told the story to your cousin, would they find it interesting or useful enough to go back and tell it to their family? Would a Member of Parliament be enthused to go and speak about it in the House? Would a journalist be inspired to go back to the newsroom and convince their editor that they have got a great story?
Something will make news if it:
• Reveals something new
• Relates to something on people’s minds during a given period
• Is surprising or unusual
• Is controversial or provokes debate
• Affects a large number of people
• Relates to a prominent or famous person or place
• Is about a place, person or institution that your target audiences relate with
• Is interesting to hear
Some practical ideas
Knowing what makes news is one thing but under what circumstances is scientific information most likely to draw the attention of journalists? Below are some suggestions.
• If you have published new research findings that meet some of the news criteria described above, pitch it to the media.
• When an issue related to your research topic is in the news or is trending on social media, contact journalists and provide a scientific explanation and advice.
• Has a credible institution released a technical report that has your inputs? This is an opportunity to make news by providing context and additional views.
• Have you or any of your team members won a prestigious award? Awards often make news.
• Have you signed a major new partnership or launched a project that is likely to change the lives of many people? Chances are it will get coverage if you tell the media about it.
• Is there a tragedy that requires scientific explanation and technical advice within your research area, for example a landslide? Make contact with the press directly (or through your institutions’s communications team) to share your expertise and comment.
Make it convincing
Your mission is to convince the editor in one or two sentences that you have an interesting and important revelation. Here are some ways to make your pitch convincing:
• Relate it to a story that the media outlet has recently published. Often media outlets publish follow-up stories with new information and views that emerge after the first story. Convince them that your story adds depth to something they published earlier.
• Peg it to a trending topic – when an issue related to your research is trending on social media or in the news, people will easily pay attention to your views and interpretations
• Demonstrate that your findings could change the lives of many people, for example how many lives could be saved? How much wealth could be created? How many people could be prevented from starving?
• Think about opportunities for coverage beyond the pure news segment of a media outlet. When something is already in the news the media outlet is likely to host you on a talk-show or let you write a guest article on the subject.
• Show that your research findings speak to the major issues that members of the public are most concerned about, such as personal security, food and income.
How to structure your pitch
•First sentence: Immediately say what you have discovered. Example: We have identified an insect that can be used to control the fall armyworm in Africa.
• Second sentence: State the significance of your discovery. Example: Millions of people across Africa could be saved from food insecurity and financial loss due to the fall armyworm.
• Third sentence: explain why it is important to publish the story now. Example: Millions of African farmers and stakeholders have been eagerly waiting for a solution to the fall armyworm and they would be interested to read about this.
• Fourth sentence: State any accompanying documents that you are providing, for example a press release and full research paper or abstract.
• Fifth sentence: Offer to provide additional information, pictures and any other guidance where necessary.
• Finally, provide them with your contact information before signing off the email. Throughout the pitch, use simple language.
Say it in a language they understand
Above all, present your pitch using words that journalists can easily understand and relate with. You cannot convince anyone by saying what they do not understand. Avoid scientific jargon. Find everyday words or phrases that convey the same message; for example rainfall instead of precipitation, smell instead of olfactory receptor usage and insect instead of parasitoid.
You need to make contact and develop relations with reporters and editors so that when you need them your pitch will fall on a fertile ground. Human beings are more likely to read an email if it is coming from someone they know and have met.
Besides, you get more cooperation from journalists if you continually engage with them as opposed to coming to them only when you want publicity. There are a number of simple acts that can make you a darling of journalists, for example:
• Helping them to get photos of places that they normally do not have access to.
• Giving them the rights to use your photos.
• Granting an interview or appearing on a talk show when they need your professional views on a matter of public concern.
• Interpreting situations for them.
• Tipping them off when something interesting is going on in science circles.
• Reading, watching or listening to their stories and giving them feedback.
• Pointing them to professional development opportunities, for example trainings or fellowship.
In an nutshell, convincing the media to report on your research should be a continuous process, not a one-off.
Dr. Charles Wendo is the Training Coordinator for SciDev.Net.