Research news and feature stories shared through the university’s distribution channels and platforms are a window to Wisconsin’s large, diverse and robust portfolio of scholarship. The news we share is critical to our reputation as one of the world’s great public research universities.
To ensure that we continue to maintain and bolster our university’s reputation, the news materials we share with the world should be a match for the great research they portray. To that end, University Communications has developed guidelines to help make the news we share more stylistically and substantively uniform and seamless for our audiences.
These are guidelines, of course, but delivering well-reported and well-produced news and feature stories helps us succeed in an increasingly dynamic and competitive environment. We welcome additions and suggestions for improving these guidelines.
Ideally, news and feature stories should weigh in between 500 and 750 words. Some stories — some features, obituaries of distinguished faculty or staff, special projects, true “breakthroughs” and especially complex research — can be longer. Shorter is better, however, in an age when our stories compete for attention with a growing body of media and social media.
Know our audiences
The materials we prepare are not intended as technical or scholarly communications. We are not writing for researchers’ peer groups or for other “insider” groups. Nor is our primary goal to solicit donations. Rather, we are writing for the broad campus community, alumni and the public, as well as for reporters. Stories should be written in plain language that a non-expert can understand. Try to relate research advances to the larger picture, so that the audience knows why it is important. For instance, an article on a new immunotherapies includes this sentence: “If they are shown to work as well in the body as they do in the lab, the nanoparticles might provide an effective and more affordable way to fight cancer.”
Researchers use specialized language to communicate with their colleagues. Our audiences do not know these languages. Keep jargon to an absolute minimum. If a technical term must be included, it’s important to define it.
Every story should be accompanied a headline, ideally no more than about 75 characters, including spaces. The shorter, the better, and be direct. The headline and opening sentences of any story are the most important elements of a narrative, where you can either gain or lose your reader as they scan the news. In general, your headline should be distinct from your first few sentences.
Don’t bury the lead
Sharing complex research is a challenging enterprise. Sometimes we feel the need to launch our stories by explaining some phenomenon or process to set up our news. It is critical to get to the point of a story — the take-home message — as quickly as possible in order for it to be conveyed effectively to readers. Consider these questions from a reader’s perspective: What’s new? Why should I care? What does this mean to me?
Every story benefits from an image, as pictures help draw readers in. Some platforms, such as the UW–Madison News homepage, require an image for every story, and the lack of an image may mean a story cannot be featured. While it may not be possible to find a picture or video for all stories, the vast majority of our news can be illustrated in some way. Seek images, video and other graphic elements from your sources or from other open access or stock image sites. University Communications has a photo library and other resources that may help. In some instances, University Communications may be able to provide help obtaining photos or videos. Check with your University Communications contact for more information about available resources. Finally, when contributing images, make sure we have explicit permission to use contributed images in widely shared news materials. Reporters will sometimes use them, too. Caption the images you share, in plain language, and provide credit information.
Do not overstate
Naturally, we take pride in the work of our faculty and staff and we want to share the excitement of discovery with the world. It is essential, however, not to overstate research results or potential outcomes. Readers who come to expect hyperbole from UW–Madison news will stop reading it. It is especially important to avoid overselling news related to human health to avoid creating false hope or unrealistic expectations.
A word on animal models
Many research projects depend on animal models. At UW–Madison, we do not shy away from mentioning the contributions animals make to advancing human or animal health. This is obviously a sensitive and contentious area and anyone in need of help describing models or working through research that uses animals should not hesitate to reach out to University Communications. We have a great deal of experience sharing research that depends on animals and managing related issues.
Embargo systems are designed to give journalists access to confidential work ahead of publication so they can report on the work in time for its public release. Some journals employ a news embargo system for sharing research they publish. This is especially true for high-impact journals like Science, Nature, JAMA and PNAS. University Communications has systems in place for sharing embargoed news with interested journalists without breaking embargo policies. Whenever possible, have your materials ready ahead of embargo time so that we may share the news early and help solicit good coverage. It is important to follow the embargo news guidelines of a journal, but know that not all journals have formal policies. If you need help figuring out an embargo and how to share embargoed news appropriately and effectively, contact University Communications for assistance.
Journalists and others want to know who has paid for the research we are promoting, and federal law requires that we acknowledge funding from the federal government. Include a reference in the story and provide detailed funding information, including grant numbers for federally funded work, in a separate paragraph at the end of your story.
Excise extraneous information
Sometimes faculty and others insist on including information that may not be germane to a story, and it often bogs things down. Named professorships, exhaustive lists of co-authors and/or collaborators, and departmental or unit boilerplate constitute information that may be important to the investigator, but have little or no utility to our audiences. When in doubt, cut it out.
Because the story will be posted on the Internet, provide URLs that link to key information. In particular, a link to the published study, as well as links to past stories that provide background, are helpful. Some links can even go to sites providing the extraneous information professors requested but aren’t included in the story. If you have a link to the published paper a news article discusses, include it. Soon-to-be-published research papers may not have a link prior to publication, but we can update the story after publication if you share the link when the research paper goes live.
UW–Madison spends more than $1 billion annually on research. Our faculty do an amazing job landing awards and they may be interested in sharing that news widely. Because we would do little else if we publicized every award, it is essential that we perform some kind of triage. Generally, large awards (more than $5 million) may merit coverage. Also, if a grant is funding some very interesting or unusual research, an argument can be made for coverage. However, it is important to manage expectations and not agree to cover routine awards through the university’s primary news channels. Department- or college-level websites and newsletters may be appropriate channels for announcing smaller grants.
We do not routinely include titles beyond a formal title (e.g. named chairs) on first reference. On second reference, we refer to researchers by their last name, not “Dr. Lastname.” We also rarely make distinctions between assistant, associate, and full professorships. Avoid overburdening stories with academic titles.
Work ahead on stories as much as possible. The time of release depends on our workload and the editorial calendar. If you’d like your story to go out on a specific date, don’t wait until the last minute. If possible, forecast your story to your University Communications contact, giving some idea of what the story is about, where research may be published, images that may be available or needed, and a timeline. This information is logged and made available to our editorial chain for planning and production purposes. This is especially important for news under embargo.