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Tip Sheets

Tips for covering scientific conferences

Mark Taylor
Mark Taylor

By Mark Taylor

How can journalists make the most of their time and energy when covering a scientific or professional conference?

I’ve attended a few scientific conferences in my two decades as health care journalist. And while that doesn’t qualify me as an expert, over the years I’ve painfully acquired a few tips for how to successfully cover such massive events. Most recently, I attended the annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America (as part of the Journalists in Aging Fellows program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America), which featured more than 500 presentations, symposia and poster sessions.

  1. First, accept the obvious: You can’t be in two places at once. Pace yourself. Select the best and most interesting sessions that are most likely to produce interesting and provocative stories or break news.

  2. Before you attend, peruse the online or paper conference agenda. It will list topics, speakers and occasionally the work or university affiliations of speakers. Sometimes the program agenda is organized by category, which could include business, science, clinical, social practices or behavior. Look not only for what interests you, but what you can turn into stories.

  3. Prepare and plan your time well. Some conferences feature online planning tools that allow you to create your own daily schedule according to sessions you choose. Sessions within one conference could be located blocks away, so a personal itinerary is a good idea.

  4. Contact the organization’s public relations manager or press liaison to probe further in topics of interest. Usually they’ll know how to contact speakers and presenters and will have a good idea which sessions are likely to create breaking news or break new research ground.  You can often get copies of PowerPoint presentations or handouts online or by email after the conference – especially helpful when you can’t attend simultaneous sessions.

  5. Pitch your stories to your editor, whether you’re a staffer or a freelancer. Your editor’s response may determine which sessions will be mandatory and which you can skip. Why waste time? Identify your goals and prioritize.

  6. Wear comfortable shoes. It’s possible to log eight or 10 miles a day between sessions at big conferences and sensible shoes help. Pack a small tube of Vaseline as a backup plan for chafing feet.

  7. While the symposiums, lectures, plenary and paper sessions are important, don’t overlook the poster sessions – which are often presented in exhibit halls. They are usually narrowly focused studies and can yield real gems, either in the subject matter or in the sources. Their results are actually presented on poster boards.

  8. While you’re in the exhibit hall, make time to swing by some of the exhibit booths too. You may find a new resource or potential story leads.

  9. Bring and accept many business cards. Most conferences offer social mixers or cocktail hours, opportunities to meet with speakers and researchers. These represent chances to mingle, network and schmooze potential sources and probe deeper into earlier sessions. Often there’s free food. Sustenance is important and the plethora of interesting sessions sometimes pushes meals off the agenda. Don’t forget to eat. Pack a protein bar or apple in your laptop bag.

  10. Transcribe and review your notes and session handouts daily. Sometimes they’ll provoke new story ideas.

Got a tip about conference coverage to share with your fellow journalists? Let us know!

Mark Taylor is an independent health care journalist based outside Chicago. Taylor was legal affairs reporter for Modern Healthcare magazine and writes for newspapers including The Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Sun Times and Gary (Ind.) Post-Tribune. He is a former Kaiser Media Fellow and a co-founder of the Association of Health Care Journalists.