In the series, "Worth Pitching?" I'll describe research I've come across in the course of science journalism and discuss what goes into pitching a story on it or not.
As a science journalist, I blaze through hundreds of press releases and science papers daily, looking for stories that might intrigue my readers. All research may be worthwhile, but what might the general public want to read about?
Keep in mind that what each science reporter likes to write about can be idiosyncratic, so my choices might not be the choices another science reporter or you would make. Also, it bears saying — whether I pitch a story or not isn't a judgment on whether I think the research is worthwhile, since my hope is that all research moves human knowledge forward. I'm focused on whether whatever audience I write for might be interested in reading about it.
The major journals science reporters often comb through for stories include Science, Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. One paper I ran across in PNAS was this paper, "Flat tori in three-dimensional space and convex integration."
Now math is hard to pitch for a number of reasons. The general public wants stories about research it can relate to, and higher math can be too abstract for that. Also, there aren't that many journalists who know higher math — if science reporters have science training, it's usually in the life sciences — so if reporters or editors don't understand the work, you can't imagine they would run a story on it.
But this story has a number of things going for it. For one thing, it has stunning visuals:
Images like that help overcome reticence lay readers might have toward subjects they feel they might not understand. They want to learn more about something that looks intriguing.
Most importantly, the researchers explain that what they did is visualize what once was thought impossible to visualize. That gives this story a narrative to follow, and a very compelling one at that — one with a goal to reach, an obstacle to overcome, and a beginning, middle and end. It also employs the word "impossible," which is a draw to readers in general.
Another factor is that the mathematicians wrote a lay friendly explanation of what they did, helping reporters write a story that editors and readers can understand. (This served as the basis of a press release.)
Finally, the audience in question plays a key role. Every news outlet has a different audience, and what might play well for one might turn out poorly for others. I recently did some work for io9, whose editor explained to me that math stories were actually quite popular with them. Their readers apparently like the sense of wonder that can come with a good math story, and the feeling that they might get a chance at understanding something they might not ordinarily.
So that's how that research became my story "The Bizarre Object We Believed Was Impossible to Visualize". I quite liked it, and it's turned out to be popular so far, with more than 35,000 pageviews and nearly 80 comments to date.
You can email me regarding Worth Pitching? at firstname.lastname@example.org.