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The APS is shifting its media relations and outreach efforts into high gear with the creation of a new position to coordinate the Society's interactions with national print and broadcast media. Randy Atkins, formerly senior science writer and television producer with the American Chemical Society (ACS), joined the APS staff in July as a senior media relations coordinator. The creation of the position was one of the principle recommendations of the APS Task Force on Informing the Public, chaired by Leon Lederman of the University of Chicago, which presented its interim report to the APS Council in May. Appointed earlier this year, the task force was charged with recommending ways in which the Society could enhance its efforts to inform the public, political leaders and other relevant constituencies about the nature and importance of physics to society.
According to Lederman, task force members were unanimous in their recognition of the need for a full-time staff person at the APS with strong media experience to "pitch" physics to the general media, coordinating efforts with the American Institute of Physics' Public Information office to achieve maximum effectiveness. "It is important to increase the coverage of science generally [such that] most of the public hears something about physical science on a regular basis," says task force member Julia Phillips of Sandia National Laboratory. "And the APS should collaborate with the AIP in every possible way, since the public will not in general differentiate physics from any other physical science."
Atkins earned his BS in microbiology from the University of Florida in 1983 and subsequently worked at the National Institutes of Health, investigating AIDS, and the US Department of Agriculture, designing and performing bacterial tests on food samples. But he soon discovered that his real interests lay in communicating science through the media, especially radio and television; he began tagging along with local news teams to learn the ropes. After completing internships at two television stations in Washington, DC, he joined WVVA-TV's Channel 6 News team as an on-air reporter, covering a wide variety of stories for three daily newscasts.
In 1987, Atkins joined the ACS as a television reporter and producer for "Inside Science TV News," in conjunction with the AIP. He engaged in all aspects of bringing science and technology stories to TV newscasts worldwide. He has placed science stories on all three major networks, as well as such outlets as "Good Morning America," "Nightline," the Discovery Channel, and CNN. When ACS pulled out of the project in 1998, he became a senior science writer there, sifting through scientific papers to find news stories of interest to the media and general public, and writing news releases on those topics.
Atkins' focus with the APS will be to foster physics coverage in broad-based national popular media, both print and broadcast (radio and TV) formats, drawing on the numerous valuable contacts he has made in those industries over the years. He will coordinate some of his efforts with AIP's Public Information activities, and hopes to draw on physicists tapped as spokespersons for the nascent APS Public Face of Physics project, intended to put journalists in touch with the appropriate scientific "experts" on a topic for articles with a science or technological component (see APS News, January 1999).
Whenever possible, Atkins hopes to find ways to tie physics into stories about current events, many of which frequently have a related underlying science story. "Many news stories could be enhanced by the unique perspectives of physicists, from breaking hard news prompted by such events as natural disasters, to soft features like the science behind the techniques of a sports star," says Atkins. "I hope to make the APS the first place journalists turn to when they want to add depth to the news of the day."
The task force also explored other potential ways to enhance the Society's outreach activities, including television, radio, print and electronic media. Of these, revamping the APS website—to be more dynamic and appealing to a broad audience with appropriate links to related sites—generated the most enthusiasm. Task force member, Michael Barnett of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, also suggested the organization of occasional Webcasts with the assistance of an experienced professional organization, such as San Francisco's Exploratorium science museum, which has done this numerous times with a live in-house audience drawn from the general public. Above all, "We must recognize that visuals - images, icons, cartoons, videos, etc. - are essential ingredients in communications, especially with the public," says task force member Eugen Merzbacher (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill). "Words, written or spoken, are insufficient to get our message across."
Editor's note: Randy Atkins welcomes input from APS members with information about new and noteworthy scientific advances to help get maximum coverage in the popular press. He can be reached at 301-209-3238, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette