Washington Journalist Explains How to Capture Media Attention

Have you ever listened to a news report and wondered why editors chose the stories they did? Understanding what makes a story attractive to journalists makes a big difference in successfully getting a PH-related story into the media.

To explain what wins a journalist’s attention, PHA turned to Robert McCartney of the Washington Post. McCartney, a local columnist and former top metro editor at the Post, has often evaluated and selected stories offered by advocacy organizations like PHA. He says that to be effective, story ideas should contain as many of the following elements as possible:

  • Timeliness. A journalist’s job is to tell the news — what is happening now. To gain attention, McCartney recommends contacting the media with something that’s just happened, recently happened or is just about to happen. Connecting your story to a trend also provides a helpful context for your idea within a larger scope. For instance, the trend of more children surviving to young adulthood with PH can be the backdrop for the personal story of a patient under age 30.
  • Relevance to the audience. Will your idea or event have the most impact in a suburb or part of a city? McCartney says suburban or neighborhood media, including highly localized online news sites, may be the best route. If pitching a story in a larger city, look for a local angle that’s meaningful to a wider population, he says. Then you’ll stand out more from the many other worthy organizations also competing for coverage.
  • Human interest. Stories about overcoming adversity, spurring community involvement and overcoming the odds are good attention-getters, McCartney says. Personal experience stories about living with PH are rich in these themes.
  • Visual material. Print, television and online media need to look good as well as sound good, so the opportunity to use photos or video appeals to editors. McCartney emphasizes that visuals should help tell the story. Images of people doing activities are one strong approach. Other ways to provide good visuals might be staging a balloon launch, showing a crowd expressing its spirit, or presenting medical equipment for PH patients with an explanation of how it is used.
  • An expert. Especially with a disease as little-known and complex as PH, a doctor, nurse practitioner or other allied health provider brings the depth of knowledge often needed to answer journalists’ questions.
  • A one-page fact sheet. Putting the key information at a journalist’s fingertips is important, McCartney notes. Always include dates, times, places and contact information for special events. For stories of PH patient experiences, write a very brief summary of the patient’s story, highlighting what makes it interesting or inspiring. Add basic information about PH — the condition, symptoms and treatment — or enclose PHA materials as background.

Who to Contact

McCartney also recommends that those contacting the media approach a variety of staff at a single news organization simultaneously. For instance, a story about a PH special event might be pitched to a local editor, a local reporter, a health editor, a health reporter and someone who covers nonprofits and philanthropy. The more people you try, the more likely you are to find your idea accepted.

He says the fastest way to get the right names is to call the newsroom and ask. When pitching your idea, however, be sure to tailor your message — showcase the health angles to the health journalists, for instance.

Any single news organization is not likely to cover PH-related stories often, McCartney says, so volunteers may want to put news organizations or journalists in priority order. He suggests saving the very most compelling stories for the news outlets most important to your effort, while sharing the lesser ones with a wider range of newsrooms.

PHA’s Advocacy & Awareness department always welcomes new volunteers interested in seeking coverage through our PHAware Campaign. We are also available throughout the year to help you solve media relations challenges. Contact us at 301-565-3004 x753 or

For help preparing your media outreach contact

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The National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) awarded PHA the Abbey S. Meyers Leadership Award in 2012 for outstanding service to PHA members in advocacy, education and other key areas.