Resources: Articles

Deadline management for medical research news Date: 01/11/13

Daniel J. DeNoon
Daniel J. DeNoon

by Daniel J. DeNoon

Deadline in a few hours? “Don’t panic” is bad advice. It’s not even possible when deadline looms and nobody has called you back.

Managing that hot little ball of panic is key. Think of it as a controlled nuclear reaction from which you can draw energy. Breathe. Maintain.

If you’re writing a news story based on a journal article, you have a few basic tasks:

  1. Obtain and read the article.
  2. Research medical literature to understand the article’s context.
  3. Interview one of the article’ authors.
  4. Interview experts on the topic the article addresses.
  5. Write a compelling story.

Now take a breath and scan the abstract. If the methodology seems sound and the results reasonable, go on to the introduction for background and skip to the discussion for the punch line. Read the rest later while waiting for calls to come in.

Finding and interviewing the author usually is the easy part. You have two basic questions: Why did you do the study? What did you find?

Outside experts are another matter. Easiest is to have pet researchers in various fields who usually take your calls. Otherwise, there are two basic techniques:

  1. Enlist a press officer at a research center to identify the right expert.
  2. Do a down-and-dirty search of PubMed to find experts in the topic area. Then email the expert and copy her press office. Then follow up with calls to the press office and to the expert’s office. Usually these experts are very pleased you saw their work and tracked them down.

In these emails and calls I always stress that my deadline is tight. Hint: Often they think a 4 p.m. deadline means they can call you at 4 p.m. Make sure you let them know to call at least an hour before deadline. And send them a copy of the article, clearly marked with the embargo time.

How many calls to make? Too many interviews eat up your day. And it’s a bad idea to burn people whom you might need in the future by telling them “thanks but no thanks” when they call. On the other hand, interviews fall through all the time. My usual M.O. is to line up three experts. You almost always get one, and three interviews is not too hard to manage. Just keep them short. You can learn a lot in 10 minutes.

When do you start writing? I don’t like to start too soon. We all think we know what the story is going to be, but nobody really cares what we think. They care about what the experts think, and you can’t know that until you ask them.

Still, it’s a good idea to come up with a tentative lede and a basic narrative into which you can plug your quotations. Just be ready to rewrite.

Four words on writing: Tell a good story. Okay, the clock’s ticking. Go write one.

Award-winning health reporter Daniel J. DeNoon has covered medical studies under tight deadlines for 28 years. He lives in Atlanta.