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UNL News Blog

Archive for May, 2010

What we’re working on

Friday, May 28th, 2010

It’s always difficult around Memorial Day to draw a bead on national reporters. Many have put their weekend stories to bed and have headed for the hills. This year, the ones who didn’t get out of town early are busy writing about BP’s Top Kill efforts (when I first heard that term, I thought it was a new competition reality show for hunters, or something). So it’s been a bit of a tough slog toward the end of the week to get much attention to UNL stories and sources.

Still, there are a couple of notable things gestating that have come from our shop:

First, a pair of professors at the College of Business Administration have released the first of what will likely be several studies about childhood obesity. Mary McGarvey and Patricia Kennedy’s work, sponsored by the USDA, is certainly topical given that the First Lady has made this one of her cornerstone issues. The new UNL study combines student, parent and school administrator surveys with analyses of individual school food policies of about 10 schools to see what factors influence student obesity. One big finding: High schools that ban a la carte junk food at lunchtime have 18 percent fewer obese or overweight students than those that do not ban the stuff. We’ve made a number of targeted pitches and are getting a lot of initial interest in their work. We’ll see if it pans out into some broader coverage.

Also, the immigration issue continues to heat up in this election year. Sergio Wals, a fairly new arrival in the department of political science, focuses his study on the politics of immigration, and his recent work on how Mexican immigrants’ premigration socialization experiences shape their political views once they arrive in the United States. In essence, Wals teases out some unique data from south of the border to show that Mexican immigrants aren’t blank slates, and shouldn’t be taken as a monolithic voting bloc for one party or the other, especially in the overheated 2010 election environment. We’ll be working up something with Wals, who is originally from Mexico City, in the coming weeks. Good stuff.

Cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

UNL educational psychologist Ken Kiewra has been known to delve into more than a few interesting topics that get the eye of the popular press. Recently, his research on the pervasiveness and the perceptions of cheating among high school students was added to that list.

This story encountered very little resistance on its way onto the national stage. For one, it was the beneficiary of good timing — many schools are wrapping up their school years, and so it’s end-of-semester test time for millions of high schoolers. Second, the research uncovered some fairly alarming findings about what students actually perceive as cheating. For example, 53 percent thought it was OK to give other students questions to an upcoming test, while just 23 percent said doing individual homework with a partner was dishonest.

We released the story nationally, because time was of the essence and time-consuming individual pitches ran the risk of us missing the key end-of-the-school-year news peg. Within a day of its release, the research became a talking point around the country: United Press International circulated a story to its hundreds of affiliates, which include newspapers, television stations and online-only news outlets nationwide. Various versions of the story also appeared at U.S. News & World Report, LiveScience.com, and dozens of blogs, including Science and Religion Today and at Minnesota Public Radio.

Then, Kiewra’s research was reported on by ABC News Radio’s national broadcast. Reporter Sherry Preston cited the study in ABC News’ May 12 report, which ran in syndication throughou the day. It was fun to hear our efforts play back to us on local affiliate KFOR-AM.

As is often the case, a local wave of coverage followed the national hits. Kiewra made the local rounds, interviewing on Nebraska radio stations KLIN (Lincoln) and KFAB (Omaha). The Associated Press also distributed a story for Nebraska affiliates, and it ran across the region for several days in mid- to late May.

Last, Kiewra also talked with Meredith Matthews, the editor of Current Health 2, a magazine for junior high and high school students published by Weekly Reader, about the findings. If we turn up a link to that piece, we’ll be sure to share it.

We’ve got a couple of other projects in the works with Kiewra, who is an expert on homework practices and studying. You’ll likely be seeing more of him in the national news in the weeks and months to come. Stay tuned.

Huskersaurus Rex

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

Cool story out of the American Southwest this week: A team of paleontologists has identified and named a new dinosaur. It’s called Jeyawati rugoculus and it lived in a swampy forest that thrived near the shore of a vast inland sea just 91 million short years ago. That area is now western New Mexico, a place not really associated today with swamps and forests, but hey, a lot can happen in 91 million years.

Yes, this has a UNL connection. In 2006, then-geology student Andrew McDonald — under the supervision of UNL professor David Loope – began a project to describe the fossil as part of his UCARE research project. Over time, McDonald’s analysis showed that Jeyawati’s bones were sufficiently distinct from those of other dinosaurs of its kind, warranting the naming of a new species.

To Dr. Loope, this comes as no surprise: ”Andrew is unusually focused and unusually hard-working,” Loope said. “He has been interested in dinosaurs since an early age and has steadily built his knowledge since age 10. He got started on this New Mexico dinosaur while still at UNL and has carried through with it to completion like I knew he would.”

McDonald is now a Ph.D student at Penn, and is the lead author of an academic article naming the new dinosaur in this month’s new issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. At least a couple metro newspapers — The Deseret News of Salt Lake City and its competitor, the Salt Lake Tribune — have reported on McDonald’s role as a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student in analyzing and helping to name the beast. We’ve put out a news release touting UCARE’s role in the process, and we also sent out targeted pitches to a number of national science reporters, as well. Hopefully we’ll see a few more hits mentioning UNL’s role in the discovery as the week progresses.

Heya, whattie?: Jeyawati was IDed as part of a UCARE project.

A Major source for UNL

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Lincoln’s and UNL’s efforts to curb underage binge drinking is increasingly seen as a model for college towns around the country. In recent months, there’s been a noticeable momentum in the number of news articles and mentions regarding Linda Major’s and NU Directions‘ efforts. The latest round of media interest in UNL’s anti-binge-drinking programming reaches back to last Dec. 21, when Major was interviewed on National Public Radio’s This American Life.

As is often the case with a national story, this set off a few tectonic reactions. A few months later, the Lawrence Journal-World published a series of articles about the city’s and the university’s efforts to curb underage and binge drinking. The series, called “Lessons From Lincoln,” was spurred by the alcohol-related deaths last year of two KU students.

The LJW’s series, in turn, caught the eye of Jenna Johnson, a UNL alumna and former Daily Nebraskan editor who now covers campus life for The Washington Post. Jenna has a festive blog about student life at the Post called Campus Overload, where she mentioned the Journal-World series and linked to it.

In the last month or so, we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in UNL’s efforts, along with questions about how they can be applied in other locales — most recently from our neighbors at the University of Iowa. At a recent gathering in Iowa City, Major was quoted extensively by the Iowa City Press-Citizen and the Des Moines Register, plus several broadcast outlets in eastern Iowa, about how large portions of our community ramped up to combat such a deeply entrenched college phenomenon.

These are the kinds of stories that we’re proud UNL is part of. Thanks to the work of folks like Linda Major — and her willingness to discuss that work with media from around the region and the country — our university is seen as a national leader.

Riding the storm out

Monday, May 17th, 2010

See? Nebraska and Colorado can play nice … off the football field, anyway.

For the first time, the two schools have teamed up to fly an unmanned aircraft into the most severe type of thunderstorm — a so-called “supercell storm.” They did it May 6 as part of the VORTEX2 project, which includes about 100 researchers from about a dozen universities in the United States. They’re collecting data that will lead to more precise storm models, which will foreseeably better predict tornado development —  and ultimately offer early warning systems. It’s sorta like the movie Twister, only with real actual science.

The unmanned craft, known as Tempest, went up for nearly 45 minutes, and measured humidity, temperature, speed and a host of other variables. VORTEX2 has gotten some national media coverage in the past, and undoubtedly will continue to get the attention of a reporter or two as storm season begins to kick into fifth gear. This certainly won’t be the last we hear of this research.

That’s Ammori

Monday, May 17th, 2010

One of our favorite faculty with whom to work is Marvin Ammori at the College of Law. As a First Amendment scholar who focuses on digital and telecommunications, Ammori is among a star-studded cast of law profs who helps power UNL’s unique Space and Telecommunications Law program. He also has a firm understanding of how to get his message out: (1) make your comments relevant and timely (2) take a stand with your opinions — leave the academic detachment at the door; and (3) know who covers your field of expertise on a national level. Those three simple tenets have paid off.

Since January, Ammori has been quoted several times in the Washington Post on topics ranging from oversight of cable companies’ new “TV Everywhere” product to Internet access issues to Apple pulling sexually explicit applications from iTunes. He’s also been on C-SPAN as part of a panel discussing the First Amendment and new technologies. Most importantly, Ammori writes an occasional blog for Huffington Post on telecom and Net Neutrality issues, which have again come to the forefront as a new member of the Supreme Court is being debated.

It’s no secret that reporters read blogs. They’re the new cop blotters and cheat-sheets of journalism. Which is why it’s important that we treat bloggers as journalists and pitch them accordingly. They are often a clear pathway toward coverage from larger, mainstream news outlets. Ammori’s recent blog at Huffington Post questioning Kagan on corporate speech issues caused a bit of a stir and resulted in some coverage — first at POLITICO, and, on Sunday, the New York Times.

Ammori does two very important things well: He keeps in touch with University Communications to let us know if he’s had media contacts, and, if he feels he can speak to an issue that’s in the news in his field, he’ll often offer up some specifics and allow us to pitch his thoughts to reporters. He’s what we call a “Perpetual Placement” — an engaged and engaging expert in a particular field who follows the news closely, understands how his voice can contribute to the national discussion, and benefits from his professional relationships with national news reporters to find his way into prominent periodicals.

In our fantasy world, we’d have an army of Ammoris on campus.

The six-day path to national saturation

Monday, May 17th, 2010

Chances are you’ve seen or heard about UNL sociology professor Julia McQuillan’s recently published study on pregnancy intentions among U.S. women. In short, McQuillan, who heads UNL’s Bureau of Sociological Research, uncovered in a national survey a broad swath of apathy among sexually active women — about one-quarter of them are, in the words of the study, “OK either way”  about getting pregnant.

The study dug deeply into women’s attitudes, influences and pressures regarding pregnancy, and pulled back a wide array of data that was somewhat overwhelming at first blush. But it was clear that, when evaluating the research, one figure — that 23 percent of women said they were ambivalent, and undecided about motherhood — clearly stood out. Often when reading voluminous studies that are chock-full of nuanced findings, it can be difficult to extract a “thin-slice” as profound as that. But in this case, I could see the headlines about one in four women being ambivalent about kids flashing across TV screens and newspapers around the country pretty easily. We just had to get it into the right reporters’ hands.

The best thing about this process was that I was given a copy of the study early, which allowed me time to evaluate which media outlets would be best for Prof. McQuillan’s study. About a month before the study appeared in Maternal and Child Health Journal, we approached Sharon Jayson of USA TODAY. Sharon was interested and said she would write something about its findings when McQuillan’s study was posted online. She also asked for exclusivity, which, given that USA TODAY has 2 million readers, we gladly granted.

On Thursday, May 6 — three days before Mother’s Day — the study was included in a story about motherhood by USA TODAY, along with a number of quotes from Prof. McQuillan. As fate would have it, the UNL study would be released the same day as a Pew Research Center survey on motherhood, and so the USA TODAY piece bundled the two studies together into one roundup story.

It’s hard to say that we were disappointed with a mention in USA TODAY, but we knew that Sharon was only able to hit the tip of the iceberg with her article. We also knew that Prof. McQuillan’s study had much more to offer on the national landscape. So, once Sharon’s story was published, we decided to flood the zone with the story and see how much traction it would receive. Over the next six days, the study showed up on hundreds if not thousands of websites around the globe, was reported on by broadcast and print outlets across the country, and spurred a lot of buzz and online conversation among women that added a raft of anecdotal evidence to Prof. McQuillan’s science.

How did it happen? We took a double-barreled approach, hitting both targeted pitches to specific reporters at national media outlets and also distributing a pre-written news release to national outlets via EurekAlert! and Newswise, as well as sending it to local and regional outlets through our traditional UNL network.

By the end of the day Thursday, versions of the story had moved to a number of online news outlets, including places that affiliate with EurekAlert! and Newswise such as esciencenews.com, physorg.com and generef.com. The initial hits also included Yahoo! News, the popular science webzine LiveScience, and a brief mention the feminist blog Jezebel.com in addition to the USA TODAY hit.

On Friday, things began to accelerate. LiveScience has a number of news partnerships, including Fox News, which picked up a version of the story and circulated it to its affiliates. New iterations of the article began appearing at AOL News, Glamour and The Village Voice. Julia Baird, a columnist for Newsweek, tweeted about the study, too.

By Monday, the story had gained more momentum. United Press International picked it up and distributed a rewritten version to its hundreds of affiliates, which include many major metro broadcasters across the United States. News radio began chattering about Prof. McQuillan’s study; before long another wave of motherhood and parenting blogs had found the findings, prompting a new round of discussion among bloggers.

Two days later, one of our targeted pitches bore fruit — CNN.com produced a story featuring Prof. McQuillan’s findings, and the story saw new life again, moving across blogs, websites and major outlets like U.S. News and World Report. Six days after it first mentioned the study, Jezebel.com ruminated about its ramifications in a prominent blog post on the popular site.

We had a lot of things go right for us on this one. First, we had a very cooperative researcher who afforded us the time to pitch the study before it went public. Second, we had a foothold with a major media outlet from the outset, which helped give the story legitimacy in the eyes of other national media. Third, we took full advantage of the tools that were at our disposal to spread the word far and wide. And last, we spent the valuable time cultivating relationships with national reporters who, in turn, produced a lot of copy on this study.

The result was a lot of steady, constant coverage of UNL research across the country (and globe) over a full week. We couldn’t be happier with the results.

The Book List: Have story, will travel

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Co-worker Aaron Coleman recently loaned me Bill Wasik’s And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture. It’s relevant, really, to anyone in the information industry –from reporters to editors to communications specialists at, say, a major Midwestern research university.

For those who might not know, Wasik was the inventor of Flash Mobs — those trendy, semi-spontaneous, digitally-driven gatherings that got some head-scratching attention in the middle of the last decade. And Then There’s This uses the story of Flash Mobs to launch his examination of the rapidly shrinking half-life of stories in our culture as they weave their way through intermingled networks of websites, e-mail, blogs and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

In short, the web has created an epidemic of Information Glut coupled with a side order of Short Attention Span. This creates a problem for those of us in the content generation (and more importantly, content sharing) business — even if it’s really, really good, it stands a good chance of getting buried by new distractions after its fleeting 15 minutes of fame. And it’s among an increasing body of work pointing out the irony that, despite an ever-expanding library of news and opinion sources now available, we don’t take advantage of it. Instead, we box ourselves and our information consumption into smaller and smaller silos of people who agree with us.

Makes sense, then, why social media sites have become the new RSS feeds. In a way, they keep the mind-blowing amount of information available to us in perspective. Instead of going to the home pages of local newspaper Web sites, they’re turning to Facebook and Twitter as their most trusted filters — interacting only with the news and information that is shared by friends or acquaintances. Think about it: You check your Facebook page one morning. Your friend Steve has sent you a link to a story about a group of girls at a Massachusetts high school who formed a pregnancy pact, and you click through unhesitatingly. Because you know your friend Steve wouldn’t send you any junk. By sending it along, your friend Steve has stamped the link with his informal, digital seal of approval.

This explains why some stories take off, circulating throughout the blogosphere, forwarded endlessly via e-mail, shared via social media — and in some lucky cases for those of us in public relations, bubbling over into the mainstream media. It also explains why some stories get stopped in their tracks before they even get started. The trick is in deducing what your friend Steve (or John, or Bob, or Natalie …) might be likely to share with you.

And Then There’s This is a quick, easy read that defines the social theory of viral culture that now dominates how information is spread: Essentially, people get news from those they trust, and will pass it along to like-minded people who in all likelihood will trust them. It’s relevant to our communications strategy at UNL, in that when considering what stories to write, to release and to promote, the old tenets of news judgment aren’t adequate any more.

If we’re not asking What are the viral possibilities for this story? as we roll out a release, then we’re not asking the right questions.