Making News: Advice from Columnists at the
by Liz Milner, Writer/Editor, National Hydrogen Association
Now that fuel cells
have become big news, members of the hydrogen energy industry
face a new challenge that requires a whole new set of skills.
That challenge is dealing with the media. Specifically, how can
we get good press and keep the medias attention over the
decade or so it may take to make hydrogen fuel part of everyday
NHA decided to go directly to the source to learn about the care
and feeding of the media. We invited five noted Washington D.C.-area
journalists to take part in a panel discussionMaking
News, a session at the 11th Annual U.S. Hydrogen Meeting
of the National Hydrogen Association on 2 March 2000on how
they report complex stories about emerging technologies. We also
asked these journalists to explain what factors attract them to
a story and what aspects of emerging technology seem the most
newsworthy. Finally, we asked them to reveal the sorts of sources
they rely on for information and story leads. The panelists were
asked to prepare 15-minute presentations.
The Panel members, in order of appearance, were:
The panel was moderated by Joe Bishop, Environmental Science
and Policy Professor at Johns Hopkins University.
Nicholas Sundt began the discussion by giving the criteria he
uses to decide if an item is newsworthy. He said that he will
cover news if it is timely and of general interest. Another important
factor is that there should be enough information available so
that he can assess the claims made for the product and also have
sufficient background information to craft an article that will
hold a readers interest. Because his publication is a quarterly,
he is interested in stories that have meat in them,
that involve issues that arent likely to be forgotten in
a short time, and that involve larger trends that affect peoples
He advised the audience that to gain coverage they should keep
the following points in mind:
- Nick Sundt, Senior Editor, Global Change Magazine (quarterly);
- James Kennedy, Occupational and Health Reporter, BNA Daily
Environmental Report, Bureau of National Affairs;
- Dave Whitman, Senior Environmental Editor, U.S. News and World
- Martha Hamilton, Business Reporter, The Washington Post; and
- Bette Hileman, Environmental Reporter, Chemical and Engineering
News, American Chemical Society.
James Kennedy, Occupational and Health Reporter for BNA Environmental
Report, was the next presenter. Kennedy writes for a target audience
that is much more specialized. His subscribers are regulated industries,
policymakers, government, lobbyists, and regulatory agencies.
For him, news is what these groups are interested in.
He pays special attention to events or innovations that cause
a change in the status quo. Because the main focus of his publication
is policy, he runs few stories devoted to a specific technology.
He tends to do this only when the story brings larger policy implications
to light. Were excited about big steps, he said.
David Whitman, Senior Editor from U.S. News and World Report,
said that different media outlets have very different audiences.
While Martha Hamilton of The Washington Post, for example, could
cover purely local stories, to get U.S. News and World Report
to cover an innovation, it should have a national dimension, be
a meaningful response to a large problem, and have a national
news peg and urgency.
He added that the innovation should also be practical (and affordable)
if widely applied and have credibility in the scientific community.
He assured the audience that he does check with experts to see
if innovations have scientific validity. He added that he has
a hard time resisting man bites dog stories, which
turn conventional wisdom on its head.
Martha Hamilton, Business Reporter for the Washington Post, said
that she tries to put new developments into a broader social and
economic context. She presented a list of dos and donts
for obtaining media coverage:
- Dont oversell and undermine your credibility. It is
difficult for him to check your overblown claims. If he hasnt
got the time to do it, he will simply kill the story.
- Highlight the human angle. Focus on the people, not the hardware.
Torchbearers are especially good subjects. Exploit the rich
human dimension of your endeavors, he said.
- Engage peoples senses; help them visualize what a hydrogen
future would look like.
- Keep journalists in mind when you design your websites. Make
sure the site is updated regularly. Include graphics journalists
Nothing is quite as valuable as someone from industry that
can put [a technological development] in broader context,
she said, while noting that most sources from industry are
bad at this.
News is made when things change, Hamilton said, but a lot of
change is incremental, and publications like the Post may not
cover those incremental steps very well.
Bette Hileman of the American Chemical Societys Chemical
and Engineering News said that her audience is industry, researchers,
and government and, therefore, she is more interested in technology
and scientific issues and in regulation and public policy issues
that relate to chemistry.
She likes to see the context of an announcement
and an understanding of the trends underway. She looks for evidence
of how industry is responding to technological change and in business
trends (where are investments being made, how is Wall Street reacting).
Hileman and the rest of the panel listed the sources reporters
use to find and develop stories. These include:
- Know the publication.
- Try to connect your story to larger issues.
- Less is more. Dont inundate the reporter
with a barrage of press releases that she cant use.
- Dont call late in the afternoon.
- Translate technology and industrial terms into language a
layman can understand, i.e., enough power to run a typical
household for a year.
- People stories are excellent.
- Dont use gimmicky hooks.
- For the Post, provide local examples.
- Ask yourself if the story would interest readers of the Post.
Hileman and the panel contributed to a list of things that members
of the hydrogen industry should avoid when pitching stories to
- Web sites;
- Credible industry sources the reporter can call;
- Email, to a degree (but email is being over-used; it is more
effective if you have introduced yourself to the recipient first);
- Reports from respected, balanced organizations;
- Press conferences;
- Newsletters, press releases, specialized publications (if
these are succinct, balanced, and well-written); and
- Phone calls.
The panelists are interested in diagrams and timelines. Timelines,
they said, were especially useful because they show trends.
Finally, the panel members noted that a reporter for a major
media outlet may receive more than 100 faxes a day. To get your
point across to this overworked person, it is vital that you tailor
your communications to his or her needs. The suggestions presented
at this session should help to ensure that your stories go to
the right reporters and get used.
- Press release deluges;
- Unbalanced information;
- Lies and exaggerations;
- Contradictory information;
- Use of organizations with one-sided reputations; and
- Hiding information about competing developments and technologies
(if there may be a better process, you should let them know that,
©2000. All Rights Reserved. A Publication
of the National Hydrogen Association.
This material may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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