Sunday, November 26, 2006

Picking Some Nits with Emma Hitt

Science writer Emma Hitt has written an excellent piece for journalists on meeting coverage called "How to survive--or even enjoy--a medical conference." Her piece originally appeared in ScienceWriters, the newsletter of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), and now it's available in expanded form on her web site.

(By the way, if you're a science or medical journalist, and you're not a member of NASW, you should join immediately. Here's a link to the benefits of membership and here's one to the PDF membership application.)

Emma's article includes a number of fine suggestions. My favorite is,

With regard to covering the presentation itself, the most important piece of advice I have is not to sit through a 3-hour symposium in order to attend a 15-minute presentation. Try to get into the conference hall about 10 minutes before the scheduled presentation. Presentations generally lag behind their scheduled start time anyway, so 10+ minutes of sitting there listening to some presentation in which you have no interest will be more than enough time. On rare occasions, speakers go out of turn and will give their presentation before you show up. This practice should be made illegal. Basically, there's nothing you can do in this situation except try to get all the information you need when you find the speaker later on-if you find the speaker later on-or tell your editor that you've found a much more interesting presentation to cover (importantly, one that has yet to take place).

Naturally, though, I do have a couple of nits to pick with her.

1. In a section on deciding what to cover she writes:

Look through the titles of the big oral sessions (oral presentations are generally more important and contain more mature data than poster presentations) and scour them for words such as "randomized" and "phase III." Any trial that contains hundreds of patients is often newsworthy, especially if it has the word "final results" in the abstract. By contrast, animal studies and phase I trials are generally not newsworthy.
I agree with those final two sentences completely. But I can't let her diss poster presentations at the expense of oral sessions. In fact, I often find poster sessions far more productive than oral sessions, especially the oral "plenary" sessions.

Plenary sessions are usually held in the largest auditorium available, are jam packed with conference attendees, and have at least two huge screens for the PowerPoints and another where a video image of the speaker is projected at ten times life size. All of this is theater, intended to make it appear as if something important is going to happen, when the speaker is actually going to spend three-quarters of his hour going over the history of the field (starting, in many instances, with Hippocrates or Aristotle). During the final 15 minutes the speaker may start talking about his or her own work, but make no mistake, almost none of this will be newsworthy, since it's all old work. It's only during the very last minute that the speaker will talk about the newest stuff, and if it's interesting and newsworthy he or she is likely to say something like, "And if you want to hear the details of this study, come to my poster presentation on Thursday afternoon."

I'm aware of course, that other types of oral presentations can be quite productive for the reporter, particularly the 10-minute brief presentations. It's only the plenaries that I avoid. But it's been my experience that poster sessions are often the most productive part of the meeting. I love poster sessions, and I'll have much more to say about them in future postings.

2. This next one leaves me speechless (well, actually, not really). After explaining that she uses her digital camera to capture each individual PowerPoint slide (a practice I endorse wholeheartedly) Emma writes:

I typically don't take notes except to make a note to myself when something important was said that wasn't included in the abstract or the slides. I also don't record the presentation-the audio tends to sound like an announcement you'd hear in a train station.

No notes and no recording? I'm dumbstruck. Now between paying attention to the presentation and photographing the slides I don't have time to take extensive notes (it would be easier if I had 3 hands and 2 brains), but I do take the time to write down the speaker's name (and his or her title and degree), the general subject of the talk, the size of the study, and the most newsworthy conclusions. After a meeting in which I could easily attend 30 talks or more, how else would I even remember whether any given talk was worth writing about?

And I record everything. While some speakers merely read their PowerPoint slides, most do not. Often they'll explain something beyond what's in the slide, and frequently they'll say something quotable. That's particularly important if it proves difficult, as it often does, to snag them for one-on-one interviews.

I know some reporters who record but take few notes, and I know others who take lots of notes but don't record. But until I read Emma Hitt's article, I thought I didn't know any reporters who neither took notes nor used a recorder.


Emma Hitt said...

Hi, Emma Hitt here. The anonymous poster kindly emailed me to let me about her post “Picking nits with Emma Hitt.” Not sure why she would do that, but I do feel the need to respond to her post.

I appreciate her nice comments in the beginning about my “excellent” piece. However, I think she should reread my article because she appears to have skipped over some of the wording and introduced some extraneous information of her own.

For example, in reference to my statement about the value of oral presentations, the poster, Roueche, goes on for an entire paragraph about the non-newsworthiness of plenary sessions, yet nowhere do I suggest covering a plenary session, and would in fact recommend against doing so. And I certainly don’t “diss” poster presentations anywhere in my piece. I often cover them. But she should understand that research findings are often presented in poster form rather than oral form for a reason.

The second paragraph about my lack of note-taking is entertaining indeed! And perhaps entertainment rather than truthfulness is the goal here—who knows. Anyway, Roueche appears to have skipped over the word “typically” and ignored the second half of the following sentence:

“I typically don't take notes except to make a note to myself when something important was said that wasn't included in the abstract or the slides.”

If you reread that sentence carefully, Roueche, it indicates that I do in fact take selective notes (and they are not only selective, but very careful and often extensive). And no I don’t record the interview; however, you might find that if you are a bit more on-the-ball with your note-taking, then you won’t have to record the presentation either.

Actually, it alarms me a bit that you not only seem to be ploughing through various unintelligible recordings after each presentation, but you said you are attending “30 talks or more” at a conference and that you only cover some of them. Perhaps your time would be better spent identifying useful talks to cover in the first place and going after those one-on-one interviews that you say are “often so hard to snag.” I should also point out that if you look in the abstract book, you can find out the “general subject of the talk,” researchers’ affiliations, and a whole host of other information that you say is so important to get down in note form.

Anyway, I wish you continued (?) success as your career develops. Thanks again for alerting me to your post and giving me a chance to set some of the inaccuracies straight. Best wishes, Emma.

Roueche said...

sThanks for responding to my posting. I certainly didn't mean to criticize your reporting style.

As journalists we all have different techniques that work for us. For example, my eyes glaze over when confronted with printed abstracts, but when I quickly walk past a row of posters, the newsworthy ones jump out at me.

My employers like me to come back from a three-day meeting with at least 12-20 stories, which is why I often sit through (and photograph and record) 30 oral sessions and walk past hundreds of posters. Even when I force myself to read abstracts I find that presentations that look interesting in abstract often fail to measure up, and conversely presentations that look boring in abstract occasionally are highly newsworthy.

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