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.