Research, Medicine, and Science News Writing: University at Buffalo/SUNY - Silver Medal

Category 9B: Excellence in News Writing – Research, Medicine, and Science News Writing
University at Buffalo/SUNY

Contact: John Della Contrada, national media director, Office of News Services, 330 Crofts Hall, Buffalo, NY 14127, Phone: (716) 645-5000 x1409, e-mail:

Program: The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York System. UB serves the people of New York as SUNY’s sole comprehensive research-intensive university and primary center for professional education and training. A major focus in the UB Office of News Services and Periodicals is increasing the visibility of the university as one of the country's premier public research universities. This is accomplished in several ways, the primary one being the strategic placement of stories about accomplishments of UB researchers in the news media. Press releases are e-mailed to 700 reporters who have subscribed through the News Services’ Web site. Significantly, personal pitches -- on occasion promising an “exclusive” -- are made by News Services’ national media director to reporters/editors at target publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CBS Evening News, NPR and USA Today, as well as reporters with the Associated Press, weekly news magazines and trade magazines.

Downloadable photos, as well as video and audio clips, often are used to support and supplement the research described in the news releases. In many cases, these photos make the story more attractive to reporters and editors, and are a great aid in pitching and placing stories.

Research news also is disseminated by posting headlines from the latest press releases on the university’s homepage (, on the News Services Web site ( and on the Web sites of various professional schools and research centers across the university. Research accomplishments are highlighted in the “Breakthroughs” section of @UB, the monthly e-mail newsletter sent to 60,000 alumni, and in three publications produced by the periodicals unit of the news office: the Reporter, UB’s weekly faculty/staff newspaper; UB Today, the university’s alumni magazine, and Buffalo Physician, the alumni magazine of the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

The six senior editors in news services are assigned beats and are responsible for keeping current with research efforts in UB’s College of Arts and Sciences and 11 professional schools. The emphasis always is on producing interesting, well-written press releases that underscore the University at Buffalo’s role as a major public research university, place significant and interesting research in the proper perspective and also best promote the university’s mission. Most important is making sure that when press releases deal with hard-to-grasp scientific or technological details that they are written to be understood easily by reporters with a range of backgrounds and education.

  1. Gain wide publicity in the local, regional, national and international news media to showcase the University at Buffalo, as well as its faculty members/researchers
  2. Increase visibility of the University at Buffalo as one of the country's premier public research universities
  3. Communicate accomplishments in a wide range of scientific subject areas reflecting the comprehensive nature of a major public research university

Audience: Reporters and editors at major newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations/networks and well-traveled and reputable Web sites and, in turn, their readers, listeners and viewers. Also, New York State legislators and taxpayers, alumni, donors, parents of students, students and prospective students.

Resources, including budget and staffing: Annual budget of $551,763 (with salaries), including $88,951 operations budget. Staff: assistant vice president, national media director, four senior editors, online editor. (FYI: U.S. dollars).

Response and/or results: Through the placement of major stories in the news media, we have raised the visibility of the University at Buffalo as a major public research institution at regional, state and national and international levels. Aside from individual news-media placements, which are many, our success can be measured in two areas:

  1. More reporters and editors have come to recognize the breadth and depth of the research programs at UB. While press releases have their immediate payoffs in terms of “clippings” and broadcasts, they also have a greater long-term impact in positioning faculty researchers with the news media and establishing their expertise.
  2. While professional journals and scientific meetings still are the arenas where researchers establish their reputations, publicity in the national news media has an impact on a researcher's peers. Stories have led to collaborations with researchers from other institutions and in the private sector. In several instances each year, our researchers are contacted by potential new sources of funding in response to stories that appear in the national news as a result of News Services' work. National and regional news coverage of the university has been mentioned as an influential factor in faculty recruitment.

During the contest period, we wrote and distributed more than 85 press releases about major research that resulted in significant coverage in regional, national and international media, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, CBS Evening News, The Today Show, NPR, CNN, The Washington Post, The Financial Times, Science News, Associated Press, BBC World Service and Reuters.

This entry consists of five press releases, with a representative sample of news clippings. They are:

Lights, Cameras, Quake: Wood Townhouse to Undergo Seismic Testing: This news release was the first of several describing a first-of-its-kind research project to test a full-scale wood townhouse on earthquake shake tables located on the UB campus. Preliminary testing began in May and culminated with a major test in November when the fully furnished house was subjected to a severe simulated earthquake. From April to November, this story was pitched in person and remotely to reporters worldwide, with an emphasis on visits to major media in Washington DC and New York City. This release was designed to trigger interest from worldwide media in the entire project leading up to the “Big Shake” in November. Because of the visual/audio appeal of this experiment we were successful in attracting major broadcast media, who sent crews to cover the final test. The result was one of the most well covered stories in university history.

Media coverage included CNN (aired on three different CNN shows), NPR Morning Edition (2x), Wall Street Journal, New York Times (2x), USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Reuters (2x), Associated Press (2x), Discovery Channel (3 different shows), the History Channel, Inside Edition, Science News magazine, Wired magazine, Canadian Broadcast Company (CBC), Discoveries and Breakthroughs in Science, Ivanhoe Broadcast, Buffalo News, all local radio/TV news stations, as well as CBS and NBC affiliates around the US., which broadcast live the final “Big Shake” in November.

15 Percent Work Under Influence of Alcohol: This news release was certain to grab headlines if we emphasized three critical elements of the study it described: 1) This was the first workplace drinking study to sample the entire American workforce. 2) Workplace drinking occurs frequently, and 3) Workplace drinking affects productivity. In consultation with the researcher, the decision was made not to sensationalize the results and focus on presenting them in a clear, organized way. We expected the results would speak volumes, and they did. This study was reported worldwide; even Jay Leno and David Letterman mentioned it in their monologues.

The hundreds of outlets reporting on this study included MSNBC TV, CBS Early Show, CNBC TV, NPR Morning Edition, NBC’s Today Show, Reuters, Associated Press, The New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, ABC News Radio, CNN Radio, BBC Radio, CBS New Radio and dozens of large-market radio stations nationwide.

Lying is Exposed by Micro-Expressions We Can’t Control:
Research into tiny muscle movements proves useful in anti-terror investigations:
Professor Mark Frank has conducted revolutionary research on human facial expressions in situations of high stakes deception. Frank’s deception-detection methodologies, described in this news release, have been taught to security officials in the U.S. and were the basis for aspects of the TSA’s “behavioral screening” program instituted in several airports nationwide in 2006. Using the new TSA program as a news hook when pitching this news release, we were able to attract the attention of several prominent media, including major broadcast media who came to campus to cover research underway in Frank’s lab.

Coverage by CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, CNN’s “Paula Zahn Now,” Fox News National Report, NPR’s “On Point,” TIME magazine, CBS News This Morning, CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood, CNN “American Morning,” Buffalo News, WKBW-TV and Business First of Buffalo.

Vesuvius’ Next Eruption May Put Metro Naples at Risk: This news release, based on a scientific publication, warned of new dangers foreseen at Vesuvius based on data from a bronze-age eruption, the power of which had not been sufficiently documented. The focus of the release was that Vesuvius, which is now adjacent to the major metropolitan area of Naples, has the potential to erupt in a far more powerful way than government policies anticipate. The idea was not to be alarmist but to reveal in a scientific way that current government policies have not sufficiently prepared the population for the potential catastrophic eruption. Underscoring that fact was a Newsweek International story that covered the UB research and that mentioned that a recent, minor unexpected snowstorm in Naples was a crisis among local responders. The Newsweek reporter noted that if even a minor eruption were to occur, the result might be rather chaotic.

Coverage by The New York Times, USA Today, Reuters, Associated Press, NPR “Morning Edition,” Newsweek International, The Times of London, National Geographic magazine, MSNBC, Science magazine, Science News Magazine, BBC, CTV, Agence France Press, Radio New Zealand and Sydney Morning Herald, among others.

UB Scientist Publishes First Human Microbe Analysis: The researcher who accomplished this important basic scientific research considered the fact that a whole community of organisms is constantly at work within our bodies making sure everything works properly to be quite wondrous. The press release attempted to convey that feeling, with apparent success. The fact that microbes, commonly considered hazardous to our health, actually are our “bacterial partners” seemed to capture the imagination of the popular press.

Coverage by NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, Daily Telegraph (UK), St. Louis Post Dispatch, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Health Day News Service and others.