How do we choose which science stories get play?

Put this on the radio?

Last week I tried out something I haven’t done since I crossed the line from researcher to reporter. I crashed a conference. I went to the New York Structural Biology Discussion Group’s annual winter meeting. Way up on the 40th floor of 7 World Trade Center, the event included a full day of lectures and about 50 poster presentations.

Naively, I went hoping to scoop some research stories. Instead, the day lead me to some some questions about my own field. There stood hundreds of researchers, each eager to share their contributions to understanding the structure of ATP-dependent copper ion pumps, or the mechanisms of microtubule self-organization, or the pharmacology of the NMDA receptor. Each important findings in their realm, but I couldn’t imagine any as a radio story. “Oh, the glutamate-gated ion channel is in a different place on the protein than you expected?!” Nope, it just doesn’t translate.

Are some fields of science just not ripe for public consumption? I’d like to unpack those judgements of what topics make for media-worthy (pop?) science and what topics will never reach audiences outside of academic journals. In all seriousness, why doesn’t the glutamate-gated ion channel sound like something you’d hear about on the radio? Is the public just not interested in more minute science topics? Are we as reporters letting consumers down by writing off complicated topics as banal? I’m torn because I believe in being super-selective in choosing topics  to cover, I don’t want to waste my audience’s time blabbing about anything but compelling stories. But in doing so am I neglecting my journalistic duty to present truly balanced reports on science?

I’m reminded of a discussion I had a few weeks ago with a phonetics researcher. In the last month a study of hers had widely circulated in the pop press. Every article I’d read on the study completely mis-represented her findings. Was she furious? Quite the opposite. She told me she was just so glad to see phonetics research in the news, the bad journalism barely even bothered her. It seemed she’d internalized media bias against her diminutive field so much that she didn’t even think her work deserved fair coverage.