No news is not good news

Last month, two writers from The Scientist and about 350 other reporters were among 1,800 participants at the inaugural EuroScience Open Forum in Stockholm. The meeting was billed as "the first pan-European science meeting ever," and included sessions on a familiar mix of diseases, planets, and dinosaur bones.Unfortunately for news hounds, the EuroScience meeting, like the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference on which it is modeling itself, was an exercise

Sep 27, 2004
Stephen Pincock

Last month, two writers from The Scientist and about 350 other reporters were among 1,800 participants at the inaugural EuroScience Open Forum in Stockholm. The meeting was billed as "the first pan-European science meeting ever," and included sessions on a familiar mix of diseases, planets, and dinosaur bones.

Unfortunately for news hounds, the EuroScience meeting, like the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference on which it is modeling itself, was an exercise in drumming up lots of coverage without having much new science to report. (In the interests of full disclosure, The Scientist Daily News featured two stories from the conference.)

Most conferences want science reporters in the audience, of course, because of the free publicity. But organizers also know they have to help reporters justify days out of the office and the expense of a trip, so press briefings abound throughout many conferences. The trick is to figure out whether anything new is being discussed.

This is a more common problem than many appreciate, even at the "best" scientific meetings, and sorting the fresh from the reheated is one of the science reporter's most valued skills. The AAAS conference always includes "newsworthy" items on sex and chocolate, since it's held in the middle of February near Valentine's Day. And sometimes AAAS has the witting or unwitting help of its journal, Science, which this year featured a press conference in which a South Korean researcher reported on the production of cloned human embryos. The announcement, based on a report in Science that week, garnered lots of press coverage.

Another tack taken by conference organizers is to cater to journalists, who of course love talking about themselves, even if they sometimes pretend to consider talking to each other a conflict of interest. So Euro-Science, like many other meetings, featured a smattering of talks on science communication. At one packed seminar, AAAS public programs director Ginger Pinholster revealed her top tip for picking science stories that will make it to print: "If it has fur, it will get ink." One could almost hear the distinct sound of dozens of index fingers hitting the delete key on stories about shrinking polar ice caps, until another panelist reminded the audience that penguins might be near those ice caps. Must be that feathers and fur are equivalent ink-getters.

- Stephen Pincock