You’re Doing It Wrong: Lessons Learned from Bad Science Pitches

3 September 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Some people have the wrong idea about how to pitch a story idea to science reporters. (Photo credit: gundolf/stock.xchng)

Reporters write stories. And public relations (PR) pros, including public information officers (PIOs – like me), pitch story ideas to reporters. But sometimes those pitches are wildly off target. And sometimes those pitches are so bad that they actually make reporters angry.

For example, I know reporters that have gotten pitches from PR firms that offer to pay reporters if the reporters are willing to mention a specific product in their stories. These pitches backfire (big time), because the reporters I know who have received these pitches have been offended at the idea that they can be bought.

But those are corporate PR efforts. Not something that affects the sphere of science news, right?

What Got the Ball Rolling

Then I saw this note from a science reporter I know: “Why do PIOs insist on sending me these ‘great story ideas’ that they are sure I will want to use for an upcoming story, and which are never anything more than thinly veiled advertisements for their institute/company?” Uh oh.

I followed up with this reporter, who we’ll call Reporter Alpha, because I wanted to learn more about the pitch this reporter received. By looking at bad pitches, PR folks can hopefully stop sending bad pitches to reporters. This saves time for everyone, and will certainly lower the blood pressure of reporters who are on the receiving end.

Here’s what happened. Reporter Alpha got an email pitch from a botanical garden. The pitch included a story idea for the reporter and highlighted several facts: a predicted decline in the botanical workforce; a decline in botanical degree programs at universities; and a decline in students studying botany. It then talked about why botany was important and listed all of its efforts to boost botany education.

I didn’t think the pitch was that bad, but there were two things in the pitch that struck me as odd. First, the pitch was way too long. Second, it didn’t connect the dots. There are a lot of facts, but I’m not sure what those facts actually mean. For example, will a decline in botany students have any impact on the workforce? In other words, is there also a decline in botany jobs, or will there be botany jobs without anyone to fill them? If the latter, that would be kind of interesting – maybe it could lead to a “brain drain” trend story on botany. (I’m actually now curious about that last question. I wish the pitch had shed some light on it!)

That was my take on the pitch. But what was Reporter Alpha’s response to the pitch? Not good.

Reporter Alpha had three criticisms on the pitch. First: “Suggesting that I should base an entire story off your press release is just annoying and feels insulting.” Second: “[the pitch] starts out vaguely promising – with the idea that there’s this crisis in botany, which could be interesting. But all [it] ever tells me about why said crisis matters to anyone who is not a botanist is stuff that’s too broad and vague to make [me] care.” Third: “It very quickly segues into ‘lack of new botanists is bad news says botanical garden!’ Which totally kills any interest that [the pitch] was building. And all the stuff [in the pitch] about [this] particular institution just doesn’t sound even vaguely unique or interesting. ‘Hey, we’re an educational facility that’s doing education!’ Why do you think my readers care?”

I’m not recounting this episode to make anyone feel bad, and I’ve tried to make the relevant parties as anonymous as possible. I’m recounting this episode because it’s something people can learn from. There are science reporters who don’t want to be pitched at all. But most science reporters don’t mind a heads up about a potentially interesting story idea. However, they don’t want to be dictated to. (Who does?) In my pitches, the most I’ll suggest is that a reporter might find something interesting (and, of course, I try to only pitch someone a story I think they’ll find interesting). Science PIOs: this is also a reminder to connect the dots. If you can make a good argument, make it. But don’t make a weak argument and hope for the best.

Other Bad Science Pitches

Off-target pitches can be ugly. And painful. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

After talking to Reporter Alpha, I asked other reporters to send me examples of bad science-oriented pitches. I got more responses than I could ever possibly use, but here are some examples. (I have made them anonymous.)

Reporter Beta sent me a list of stories he’s written. They’re all big-ticket items with an international flavor, shedding light on exotic research challenges and unexpected discoveries. He also sent me a pitch he received recently. The pitch argues that a particular species of farm animal should not be killed because it appears to exhibit certain human characteristics. The pitch cites zero scientific evidence and is not tied to any research findings.

Whoever wrote that pitch to Reporter Beta made two big mistakes: first, they clearly had made no real effort to understand what sort of stories Reporter Beta is interested in; and second, their pitch was to a science reporter – but contained no actual science. Not good.

And off-topic pitches (even really off-topic pitches) are common. One health reporter recently got a pitch from a company that makes energy-efficient lightbulbs(!). The pitch included a lengthy technical description of the lightbulb’s properties. It’s worth remembering here that she is a health reporter. Her response? “Do they think I'm going to write about this??”

The same health reporter also reports getting a lot of pitches with extremely vague (or non-existent) news hooks. “I get ones like this all the time: ‘As we get ready for fall/spring/winter/holidays/whatever, here’s advice from America’s most trusted doctor.’” Her response? “Barf.” (That’s a quote.)

Another science reporter, Reporter Gamma, sent me a lot of bad science pitches. Reporter Gamma had received a pitch beginning “Dear Howard…” (his name is not Howard). He had received a pitch for a story on Asian diet (which is nowhere near his beat). He had also received a pitch about a journal article that the PIO billed as “one of the most debated questions” in a specific research field. Because Reporter Gamma was familiar with the relevant field, he knew that the PIO was exaggerating (at best) or lying (at worst).

These are all bad pitches. Don’t get a reporter’s name wrong. Don’t pitch a reporter about subjects they clearly don’t care about. And don’t overhype your findings.

But that’s nothing compared to another bad pitch that Reporter Gamma got.

Doing It Really Wrong

Reporter Gamma got a pitch about a journal article directly from the researcher, in which the scientist referred to his own work as both “revolutionary” and a “quantum leap” in his research field. The researcher also said that a good story on his work would help him find additional funding.

Reporter Gamma was familiar with the researcher’s field, and respectfully responded to the researcher’s pitch. Among other things, Reporter Gamma noted that he wasn’t clear on why this paper was “revolutionary.” The researcher’s response was surprisingly belligerent, going on at length about the shortcomings of other researchers in the field  and, ultimately, telling Reporter Gamma not to write about the paper.

So many lessons to take from this. It’s never a good idea to call your own work “revolutionary” or a “quantum leap.” (Let others say that, if at all.) It’s not a good idea to tell a reporter that you basically want them to put out a call for funding. Do not lambaste the work of other researchers. (This makes you sound petty, not brilliant.) And, lastly, do not become belligerent if a reporter declines to write about your story idea. (Hopefully, most people do not need to be told that last point.)

Those are examples of how not to pitch a science reporter. I have also written some guidelines for how to pitch a science reporter (without being annoying). And to provide some balance, here’s a recent guest post outlining some of the things reporters do that can drive PIOs nuts.


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