Making News: Advice from Columnists at the NHA
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 media’s attention over the decade or so it may take
to make hydrogen fuel part of everyday life?
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 discussion—“Making News,” a session at the
11th Annual U.S. Hydrogen Meeting of the National Hydrogen Association on 2
March 2000—on 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 reader’s interest. Because his publication is a
quarterly, he is interested in stories that “have meat in them,” that involve
issues that aren’t likely to be forgotten in a short time, and that involve
larger trends that affect people’s lives.
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 Report;
- 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. “We’re
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 don’ts for obtaining media
- Don’t oversell and undermine your credibility. It is difficult for him to
check your overblown claims. If he hasn’t 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 people’s senses; help them visualize what a hydrogen future would
- Keep journalists in mind when you design your websites. Make sure the site
is updated regularly. Include graphics journalists can download.
“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 Society’s
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
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.” Don’t inundate the reporter with a barrage of press
releases that she can’t use.
- Don’t 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.
- Don’t 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 the
- 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, too).
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