The stereotypical view of a scientific conference is generally a mind-numbing parade of semi-coherent individuals droning on at the floor about their pet piece of fringe research while a room full of sedated people sit there wondering when they can legitimately sneak out and enjoy the local tourism opportunities but still earn the requisite CPD points.
Conferences are an exciting ferment of cutting-edge, hot-off-the-lab-bench science, world-class experts, wide-eyed PhD candidates, scientific rivalries, cheeky posters, ‘what happens at the conference stays at the conference’, and damn fine stories.
If you’re a freelance journalist, conferences are a fantastic opportunity that you should take advantage of whenever you can.
For one thing, most conferences will give media a free pass as long as you can prove your media credentials, which usually means showing them some relevant stuff you’ve written recently.
Conferences deliver a unique brain dump of information about a particular field. I have learned more in three days about a disease than I have learned in a decade of health reporting. For an info nerd like me, this is heaven.
Conferences give you access to the best experts in the field, often from all over the world. You’ll hear from individuals who have spent a lifetime researching and treating, and the insights they share in sessions are invaluable. This is also the perfect opportunity to turbo-charge your expert contacts lists so when you need to find someone to comment on some obscure aspect of a certain condition, you’ve got the right person to contact.
In the past, I used to go to the occasional conference as a freelancer without any particular news outlet paying me to be there, and that was a heady experience indeed because I would just attend whatever sessions sounded interesting.
Most of the time these were conferences in my local area, so it didn’t cost me much, but there are some conferences I have paid to travel to, such as the biennial Australian Health and Medical Research Congress, because I always find enough stories to make it worth my while.
Some of the stories I’m most proud of have come from conferences I have gone to on my own steam, such as this one on using immunosuppression in HIV infection and this one on Australian malaria research.
These days I’m more likely to be covering a conference for a specific media outlet, which is great because I get paid to be there but I still get all the benefits of the brain dump and the contact list boost, plus it gives me ideas to follow up on after the conference is done
So, cutting long post short: if you’re a freelance journalist, find out about interesting conferences happening in your local area (start by checking out the calendar of events at the conference centre), and super-interesting ones happening further afield, and get thee along to them.