Research, Medicine, and Science News Writing: Stanford University School of Medicine - Gold Medal

Category 9B: Excellence in News Writing — Research, Medicine, and Science News Writing
Stanford University School of Medicine

Contact: Susan Ipaktchian, director of print and Web communications, Office of Communication & Public Affairs, 701-A Welch Road #2207, Palo Alto, CA, 94304; phone, (650) 725-5375; e-mail,

Institution Description: The Stanford University School of Medicine is one of the world’s leading research-intensive medical schools and is the oldest medical school in the western United States. Its goal is to improve health through leadership and collaborative discoveries and innovation in research, patient care, education and community service. Our 730 faculty members attract more than $320 million annually in outside research funding

The Office of Communication & Public Affairs is the sole information outlet for the School of Medicine and coordinates with the communications offices for the two campus hospitals — Stanford Hospital & Clinics and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. (One of our science writers is funded by the children’s hospital and covers research and clinical stories for both offices.) Our office covers all basic and clinical research, while the hospitals’ offices focus on clinical services. We are responsible for keeping both internal and external audiences informed about the advances made by the medical school. In 2006, we produced 127 news releases pertaining to research, clinical innovations, medical education and health policy. Additionally, we generate a three-page section for the weekly campus newspaper, and produce a 44-page research magazine three times a year. All of our content is posted on our office’s Web site, and we also adapt it for use throughout the school’s Web site.

Our staff includes 10 communications professionals — an executive director, a three-person media-relations team and a six-person publications and Web team. Each person covers an established beat, which involves writing news releases and stories for our internal publications in addition to working with the outside media. The primary responsibility for media outreach rests with our media-relations team, one of whom works exclusively with broadcast reporters.

Communications Program Objectives: We want reporters to know about stories that represent a clear advancement in medical science, that reflect Stanford’s leadership in a particular field of study and that have broad public appeal. When we find stories that fit these criteria, we work hard to write engaging news releases that put the research findings in a larger context — for instance, how it might relate to finding a cure for a particular disease, or how it sheds light on a national policy issue.

In 2006, we handled more than 1,300 print media calls and 600 broadcast media calls, and recorded more than 5,700 media hits. In addition to the shoots coordinated by our broadcast media-relations director, we also produce our own video stories and B-roll, and have access to a studio on campus where broadcasters can conduct remote interviews with our faculty members.

We also inform internal audiences about the media’s coverage of the medical center. Each weekday, we distribute an e-mail digest called “SUMC in the News” to a few hundred subscribers that provides links to print and broadcast stories. To compile this digest, we use the Factiva and VMS services in addition to manual searches of other news databases.

Audiences: We don’t want to flood reporters with stories that don’t interest them, so we maintain targeted distribution lists for our news releases. We use our media database as well as the MediaMap service to maintain these lists (note: we only add reporters who have asked to receive our releases). Our releases are sent out primarily via e-mail, although we fax them to reporters who prefer hard copies. We also post our releases on EurekAlert and BusinessWire.

Budget and Use of Resources: The 2006 budget for our media-relations activities was $50,000. This covers our subscriptions to BusinessWire, EurekAlert, Factiva, FNS Clipping, MediaMap, VMS and our share of the university’s on-campus studio.

Description of Results:
“Genetics provide one family with a death sentence …” — A media survey commissioned by the university’s communications office found that this release generated the second-most coverage of any news release issued by Stanford in 2006. This family’s experience allowed us to show the increasingly important role of genetic counseling. We supplemented the written news release with a staff-produced video in which the director of our biomedical ethics center discussed some of the ethical questions surrounding genetic testing. We pitched this story to the Associated Press, which wrote a feature that was picked up throughout the world, in addition to stories that appeared in the Sacramento Bee and Las Vegas Sun. Broadcast coverage of the story was phenomenal, generating features that appeared on The Today Show, ABC Medical Mysteries, CNN with Paula Zahn and numerous regional TV stations.

“No link between estrogen-only therapy, breast cancer …” — We knew that findings from a WHI study would generate press releases from several different organizations, so we wanted to make ours stand out. We did this by putting the findings in context and by pointedly addressing the issue of “flip-flopping.” Since much of the resulting coverage used variations on the “flip-flopping” quote, we knew our release drew reporters’ attention. This story was featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Reuters, UPI and Bloomberg News. In addition, Dr. Stefanick was a featured guest on The Charlie Rose Show, and appeared in segments for The Today Show, ABC World News Tonight and NPR.

“Transgender experience led scientist to critique gender difference” — When we learned that a transgendered member of our faculty was writing an essay on his experiences as both a woman and a man in the world of science, we wanted to tell his story in a thoughtful, dignified way. And we believe we succeeded. In the months following our news release, Dr. Barres received more than 3,000 e-mails, eight book offers, hundreds of media interview requests and several speaking engagements. Among the coverage was a featured Q&A in the New York Times as well as stories in Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Newsday, San Francisco Chronicle, UPI, Newsweek and the San Jose Mercury News. ABC’s 20/20 did a feature on Dr. Barres, and other broadcast outlets covering the story included NPR and KGO Radio.

“New Stanford medical center policy limits drug company access” — This could have been “just” a policy announcement story, but we recognized that the school’s actions put Stanford at the forefront of an effort to change the culture of medical schools. We decided to pitch the story as an exclusive to the New York Times; the resulting coverage triggered additional stories in the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, UPI and San Jose Mercury News, and generated supportive editorials in the L.A. Times and the Mercury News. The release has had a cascading effect that continues to this day; in practically every subsequent story about medical facilities that are limiting drug-industry access, Stanford is cited as a leader. We supplemented the news release with a staff-produced video featuring medical school leaders, as well as a Q&A and a copy of the policy. The story was also reported by broadcast outlets that included CNN, KQED-FM, KNBC-TV and KGO Radio.

“Andrew Fire wins 2006 Nobel Prize” — Our coverage of this story began with a phone call at 2:30 a.m. Oct. 2, alerting us that one of our faculty members was a Nobel Prize winner. We knew we had to produce a high-quality news release and supporting materials quickly, and our staff responded in fine form. In less than five hours, we had generated an overall news release that deftly explained the significance of Andy Fire’s work in addition to a primer on RNA interference and a collection of quotes from his colleagues. We also posted a slideshow of photos that were available for downloading by the media. In addition, we posted a blog that drew congratulatory comments from throughout the world. We also organized a 10 a.m. press conference, followed by a conference call for reporters who weren’t able to attend the live event. The tape of the press conference was immediately uploaded to our Web site. The story was covered by thousands of print and broadcast media outlets nationally and internationally.