As someone who was used to covering multiple medical conferences in person each year, 2020 was a big shift. I had to adapt to covering conferences virtually.
On the one hand, it was great: I got to sit in my home, eat my own (far less expensive) food, and watch many of the presentations on my own time instead of racing from one end of a convention center to another.
On the other hand, virtual conference coverage was much more difficult. There were two reasons. One, I was keeping up with all the sessions and stories while distracted by family responsibilities (like kids in virtual school). When I’m on location, I’m 100% focused on the conference alone, and it’s easier to stay focused when surrounded by other people. I’ve found myself struggling to keep the thread of the conference going when I’m doing it in bits and pieces throughout my day at home.
Two, and even more significantly, finding conference attendees to comment on the research was a challenge. When I am reporting on location, this is straightforward. I listen to those who ask questions or offer comments during the session and get their name. Then I can walk up to some of the attendees to ask for their reactions to the research or presentation.
But you can’t walk up to folks online. The platforms used by different medical organizations vary – some allow you to see the list of all attendees in a particular session, some only let you see the names of those who elect to use the chat discussion during the presentation, and some don’t let you see any of the attendees at all (and don’t have a chat function). Plus, if you’re watching the session as a recording rather than live, it may not include the chat, even if there was one. Some conferences have allowed you to look up attendees on the platform itself and message them, which I’ve found particularly helpful. However, it still leaves you trying to find out who attended what session or might be willing to look at the research you’re covering.
So, I’ve put together a tip sheet at the Medical Studies Core Topic on the AHCJ website to share what I’ve learned about covering virtual conferences over the past year.
Below is the abbreviated list:
- Start early. Pick out the sessions you’ll most likely cover as early as you can and start looking for potential outside experts right away.
- Talk with your editor about deadlines and flexibility, including whether you can talk to people who are willing to look over the research even if they didn’t attend the session or the conference.
- Use PubMed to search for researchers who have covered the same topic as the abstract you’re writing about to ask if they can comment on it.
- Ask the conference PR officers to connect you to experts on specific topics.
- Contact the moderators of the session you’re covering ahead of time to ask if you can interview them afterward about the research presented.
- If you’ve covered this conference before, look at who you interviewed for past stories. Email them ahead of the conference to see if they’ll be attending and ask whether they’ll attend any of the abstracts you’re covering.
- Use the conference’s Twitter hashtag to find researchers tweeting ahead of the meeting and during research presentations.
- Reach out to university and hospital media relations departments ahead of the conference and let them know which sessions you expect to write about. Ask them if they have any specialists attending the conference who might be available to comment on those sessions.