Tuesday, February 12, 2008

9 Tips for Covering an Unfamilar Specialty

Yesterday I had one of my recurring nightmares. I'm covering a medical conference in an unfamiliar specialty. I can't understand a word anyone is saying. My recorder isn't working. Neither is my camera. Oh, and I'm naked.

Except for that last one I've experienced all of those calamities in real life. And (again except for that last one) I've found ways to to salvage those bad situations.

Today I'll discuss what to do if you find yourself covering an unfamiliar specialty.

1. First rule: don't let yourself get into that situation. When you're assigned to cover a specialty that's new to you, begin preparing at least a week in advance. Visit the society's web site. Google previous coverage of that meeting. Skim through a textbook. Learn the lingo and try to determine the important unanswered questions and controversies in the field.

But for the sake of argument, let's say that that much preparation is impossible. Maybe you got a last minute assignment, and you're going to the conference tomorrow. Maybe you're just lazy, and you find yourself sitting in the conference room, reading the program, and not even understanding the titles of the talks. What do you do then?

2. Attend the keynote speech and the first plenary session. I usually skip keynote speeches because they're often just broad overviews with little news value. But that's just the type of presentation that's perfect for bringing you up to speed. The first plenary session is likely to be at least somewhat newsier and will give you big pointers to the important issues in the field.

3. Don't panic if the jargon is so thick that you can barely tell whether the speakers are using English. I find that if I just let that jargon wash over me I begin understanding it after the first morning of the conference.

4. For that reason, it's especially important to record those first few talks, even if you doubt that they'll be newsworthy. Once you've absorbed the jargon, you'll be able to listen to those first talks with new ears.

5. Make a point to walk through the industry exhibits early in the meeting. You'll quickly learn the names and uses of the drugs and devices important to specialists in that field.

6. Pick up a copy of the conference's daily newspaper if it has one.

7. Latch onto a friendly colleague. Reporters familiar with a specialty often know even better than the specialists themselves the important issues in the field. It's my experience that there's a decent level of camaraderie in most meeting press rooms, and few reporters guard their scoops jealously.

8. Pick the brains of the meeting press officers. They're usually medical writers too, and they're eager to point you to the hot topics and the good sessions.

9. At least glance at the press releases inside and outside the press room, even if you have no interest in covering the touted stories. Press releases are usually written by professional writers like us specifically for reporters, and they're likely to put the topic in context and define their terms.


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