General News Writing: Duke University - Gold Medal

Category 9a: Excellence in News Writing – General News Writing
Duke University

Contact: Keith Lawrence, director of media relations, Office of News and Communications, 615 Chapel Dr., Durham, NC 27708, Phone: (919) 681-8059, e-mail:

Duke University’s Office of News & Communications (ONC) has a staff of 15, five of whom –- four writers and a supervisor -- handle the bulk of external news releases. A sixth person is responsible for distributing these releases to the media.

One goal of ONC is to inform the public about the scholarly work taking place on our campus, and in doing so increase the public’s understanding and appreciation of the contributions made by Duke’s faculty, staff and students. One way we accomplish this is by distributing timely news releases, news tips, opinion pieces, expert lists and other information to the appropriate external media. Media receiving news from ONC are identified through Bacon’s and personal contacts. Many releases also get disseminated to the media through the Ascribe news service.

The costs associated with external media relations (excluding staff salaries/benefits/phone bills/etc.) is about $5,000 a year, which reflects the costs of a subscription to Bacon’s and the use of Ascribe. This figure does not include the cost of an on-campus television studio that ONC uses on an as-needed basis. Using the television studio for satellite interviews runs about $25,000 a year and the costs are shared by ONC, Duke’s Medical Center news office and some of Duke’s professional schools.

Each of the five releases or news tips contained in this entry received prominent media attention, largely because they were timely and/or touched on subjects of interest to the general public. The release receiving the most attention detailed the findings of a new study called “Social Isolation in America,” which found that, compared to 20 years ago, Americans have one-third fewer people with whom they could discuss important matters. The study got more than 500 media mentions, including about 30 radio and TV interviews. There were stories in the Washington Post, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Good Morning America, the CBS Evening News, Time magazine and the front page of USA Today. Ellen Goodman wrote a column about it and Maureen Dowd referred to it in her column. The international media -- especially in Canada and Britain -- wrote about it extensively. The study’s co-author, Lynn Smith-Lovin, also wrote an op-ed that our office placed in the Detroit News, San Diego Union-Tribune as well as one of the local papers. It certainly opened the eyes of many faculty and administrators on campus to the possibility that academic research (even in the social sciences) could be of such interest to the mainstream media and the public.

The other four releases in this entry also received widespread media attention, although not to the extent that the “Social Isolation” release did. Harris Cooper’s study about the impact of homework on student achievement and why too much homework can be counter-productive was picked up by many newspapers, including the Washington Post, and cited in a number of columns. Cooper also wrote an op-ed that drew from his research that our office was able to place in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Newark Star-Ledger, Contra Costa (Calif.) Times as well as one of the local papers.

Sociologist James Moody’s study on the number of Americans who know someone killed or injured in Iraq and Afghanistan came at a time when a government study group was about to report to President Bush on the best way to proceed with the war in Iraq. The study was not only covered as a news story, but was cited in editorials weighing the impact of the war and served as the topic of discussion on an MSNBC talk show.

The release about a new study that assessed Latino immigrants’ attitudes toward blacks also hit on a timely topic of widespread interest. Stories ran in the Chicago Sun-Times, among others, and Professor McClain was interviewed by a number of radio stations, including two NPR affiliates.

The last release in this entry provided an easy-to-navigate list of experts and story ideas for reporters writing about the 5th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. (We also produced a similar list for the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.)

Duke is a research university with about 6,250 undergraduate students, 6,800 graduate students and 2,500 faculty members. The mission of the university is to provide a superior liberal education to undergraduate students; to prepare future members of the learned professions for lives of skilled and ethical service and to advance the frontiers of knowledge; to contribute in diverse ways to the local community, the state, the nation and the world; and to attain and maintain a place of real leadership in all that we do.

Each of these news releases and news tips not only generated a number of stories, but achieved a larger institutional goal of demonstrating how the research and knowledge of Duke’s faculty apply to the important issues of the day. And it should be noted that these releases were produced at a time when the vast majority of our office’s time and resources were devoted to the media frenzy surrounding the Duke Lacrosse case.