Health policy researchers are some of the most valuable sources I’ve used in my career as a health care journalist, especially now as host of Tradeoffs, a national health policy podcast. For every academic that’s become a go-to source for me on pharma, Medicaid, or the ACA, I know there are dozens more I’ve never heard from who are doing important research in these and countless other fields.
Researchers often tell me they are unsure how to share their work with reporters and that the media can feel like a black box, so people end up staying on the sidelines. But between COVID-19 and a new administration with ambitious health plans, this is a crucial time for journalists to help explain what we know works (and doesn’t work) when it comes to improving health and reducing costs. In other words, we need your help!
Since I’ve done a fair amount of counseling and cajoling academics into becoming more media-friendly, AcademyHealth has invited me to share my tips on enticing the press to cover your work – what we call ‘pitching’. I hope this helps demystify the process and leaves you feeling ready to wade into these waters.
Why pitch: If you’re involved with AcademyHealth, you’ve already checked the first important box: being committed to translating your evidence into action and impact. One of the best ways to reach decisionmakers is through the media they consume.
It is virtually impossible for most health reporters to stay atop the health policy literature, especially as newsrooms shrink. Reporters are most likely to cover your study when it is new, not when they stumble upon it months later. So, proactively giving them a heads up (that’s all a pitch really is) about your study can greatly increase the chances it gets covered.
What to pitch: Every outlet has different criteria for what kinds of health care stories they cover, largely depending on their audience and format. In general, though, reporters will be interested in studies that meet three rules of thumb:
- New: The study should be forthcoming or very recent, not from months or years ago.
- Significant: The findings should advance our understanding of a topic in a substantial way — even better if they’re surprising/counter-intuitive. Does your work counter prevailing assumptions in a meaningful way, or nudge our understanding toward a different policy option?
- Timely: The results should be relevant to something important currently happening, such as COVID-19 or a new bill passed by Congress.
When to pitch: Ideally, you’ll alert the media to your study before it’s published so the journalist has time to report and then run their story on the same day, or soon after, your study comes out. Even if your study is under embargo, you can still give the media a heads up about it and share its expected publication date. Consult with your university public relations (PR) department and/or the publishing journal’s staff about their embargo guidelines first.
How to pitch: Head to your university’s PR department if you need help. If your work is being presented at a conference, you might consider contacting the hosting organization’s PR department to help coordinate as well. Otherwise, start by locating the reporter’s email address or even send them a direct message on Twitter. Keep your message short (3-6 sentences) and simple, with as little jargon as possible. Think of it like fishing—this is just the bait to reel them in. Once hooked, then you’ll have a chance to share the additional details and nuance.
See if the pitch checks the three aforementioned boxes: its newness, significance, and timeliness. One bonus addition that can strengthen your pitch: Suggest real people or programs affected by, or illustrative of, your findings who the reporter can also interview.
For example, is there a patient advocacy group whose members have experienced the care disparity that your research quantifies, or a health system that’s pioneering the payment model you’ve studied? Those suggestions can help the reporter see how they could easily flesh out a fuller story beyond your study results. Again, not required—but definitely a plus.
Who to pitch: The reality is that while we would all love to be featured in the New York Times, not every study gets picked up—and coverage in other outlets can be just as valuable. If your study is more niche or wonky, consider pitching trade publications or podcasts that reach more specific audiences. If your study took place in a particular state, contact local media.
The best predictor of whether a reporter/outlet will cover your pitch is their prior coverage. If you have time to skim their recent stories, ask yourself: Have they covered similar issues? Do they tend to include evidence in their stories? Does the nuance or depth of their stories match the complexity of the study I’m pitching?
Last but not least, my final piece of advice: When in doubt, pitch! Like in health care, it’s all about relationships. Even if a reporter doesn't cover your study this time, pitching them is how they’ll get to know your work and they’ll be more likely to reach out to you as a source for a future story. And if you need a place to start, our weekly podcast Tradeoffs specializes in covering health policy’s thorniest topics and latest research, so we are all ears.