By Eric Sorensen, WSU News

Life on the moon, the nation’s political dyspepsia, and the environmental dangers of plastic were among the most newsworthy Washington State University research stories last year, according to a communications office analysis.

WSU writers produced and publicized nearly 100 stories on research in 2018. All told, they had a potential audience of nearly 4.5 billion people.

Virtually every major news outlet picked up at least one WSU research story last year. One story alone was picked up by Los Angeles Times, Scientific American, Seattle Times, New York Times and The Washington Post, while other stories saw coverage in National Geographic, Popular Science, Smithsonian magazine and the full suite of state media.

As it did last year, the WSU Marketing and Communications office analyzed every research news story distributed to reporters from the central news office or posted to EurekAlert, the subscription news service of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Each story was analyzed in the Cision news database, which monitors the vast majority of news outlets and computes their potential audience based on outlets’ circulations or unique visitors. The potential audience serves as a guide to relative popularity; the number of actual readers is significantly smaller, as readers and visitors rarely take in every story in a periodical or website.

The value of science, let alone rational thought and evidence, is not self‑evident. In fact, it is under attack. It needs to be reclaimed every day and at every opportunity, and media attention for the WSU research enterprise is a vital tactic in that pursuit.

Observations from the data:

  • The story is all. News values like human interest, timeliness, conflict and currency far outweigh the usual measures of scientific accomplishment, like citations or a researcher’s credentials. Of the 300 most‑cited studies featuring WSU researchers last year, only three made news. The second-most popular research was by a graduate student.
  • For the most eyeballs, timeliness may be the most important news value. The top stories consistently coincide with the moment a study is published online or relate to current events.
  • There is no “WSU story.” There are hundreds. But while no single story reflects the University’s overall research prowess, the body of coverage demonstrates time and again how WSU research intersects with things that matter: the potential for life in outer space, family strife, the lives of ancient people, threats to our health and environment, and the power of science and technology to make life better. The stories fulfill a major strategic goal – disseminating our newly created knowledge – and validate the core message that WSU has smart people doing important, interesting things.
  • Media attention varies widely across colleges, even those dedicated to hard sciences.
  • You can’t make news if no one knows about you. The researchers behind the most successful stories alerted a communicator, often before their work was published (see “timeliness,” above). Conversely, several truly groundbreaking stories missed their media moment. If you’re wondering whether your work is newsworthy, ask a college or central administration communicator.

Here are the top 10 research news stories with links to news releases, potential viewership numbers, top outlets in which they were featured, and possible reasons behind their success. Other WSU stories are listed in order of popularity.

  1. Mysteries from the moon’s past

    728 million

    GeekWireAir & SpaceForbesIFLScience

    The thought of life in space—in this case, on the moon—has an endless appeal and astrobiologist Dirk Schulze‑Makuch is continually conceiving of ways it can get a foothold. Combined with the fourth study below, about life on Mars, Schulze‑Makuch’s work had a potential audience of 1 billion, nearly a quarter of the news attention given WSU research last year.

  2. Another cost of 2016 Election: Shorter Thanksgiving visits

    411 million

    Los Angeles Times, Scientific AmericanSeattle Times, New York Times, Washington Post

    Publishing in the journal Science doesn’t hurt, but WSU economics graduate student Ryne Rohla got nearly as much attention in 2017 with a working paper showing “politically divided” families cut their Thanksgiving celebrations short by an average of 20 to 30 minutes after the 2016 election. America’s political division is both historic and riveting. Rohla has corralled smartphone data and finely grained spatial voting data to see how our political dysfunction is affecting families.

  3. WSU Researchers see new plastics causing reproductive woes of old plastics

    352 million

    GizmodoNational GeographicSeattle TimesDiscover

    Health and the environment may be the two most common ways news consumers interact with science. Pat Hunt marries the two with her groundbreaking work on the estrogen-disrupting effects on plastic.

  4. Life always finds a way

    274 million

    ScienceIFLScienceAtlantic

    More Schulze‑Makuch. See above.

  5. WSU researchers build -300ºF alien ocean to test NASA outer space submarine

    233 million

    Space.com, Popular Science, New York Post, Air & Space Smithsonian

    The headline kind of says it all.

  6. Fungus provides powerful medicine in fighting honeybee viruses

    177 million

    Seattle Times, Spokesman‑ReviewIFLScience

    Just as polar bears are charismatic megafauna, honeybees are charismatic macrofauna, making them compelling players in the environmental drama known as Colony Collapse Disorder. The College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences broke out several eye‑catching stories last year, led by this one from Scott Weybright.

  7. Assessing how cannabis affects emotional well‑being

    145 million

    ForbesGizmodo

    Cannabis is a hot topic. More than 70 WSU researchers are capitalizing on Washington’s role as one of the first states to legalize non‑medical marijuana. It showed in several high profile stories.

  8. Interior northwest Indians used tobacco long before European contact

    139 million

    SmithsonianSeattle TimesDiscoverColumbianNorthwest Public Broadcasting

    “Long‑held View Upended” is the “Man Bites Dog” story of science.

  9. Battle for Spinach: Tiny crop, huge value, no virgin soil, big trouble

    (also posted as The race to protect Pacific Northwest spinach seed)
    116 million

    Spokesman‑Review

    Never doubt that a single news reporter can get you tons of coverage. One story in the Spokesman‑Review found its way to more than 60 outlets.

  10. Dramatic decline in genetic diversity of Northwest salmon

    98 million

    Yale Environment 360Science OnlineOregon Public Broadcasting

    We know salmon have been taking it on the chin. Now we learn that their genes have too.

    Logos of various news outlets.

  11. New study reveals how shift work disrupts metabolism
  12. Cacao analysis dates domesticated chocolate trees back 3,600 years
  13. WSU researchers focusing on range of cannabis health issues
  14. Clif Bar & Company and King Arthur Flour establish $1.5 million Organic Endowment for WSU Bread Lab
  15. Cognitive changes in offspring of heavy cannabis‑using rats documented
  16. Researchers develop smart phone for quicker infection testing
  17. Computer chip vulnerabilities discovered by WSU researchers
  18. WSU researchers use coal waste to create sustainable concrete
  19. New nanoparticles wait to release drugs, target infection
  20. Reverse engineering reveals pine tree’s chemical production — worth billions
  21. Researchers find new way to estimate magma beneath Yellowstone supervolcano
  22. Sexual harassment, gender stereotypes prevalent among youth
  23. 3D‑printed glucose biosensors created by WSU
  24. How plastic waste moves in the environment
  25. Six feet under: Deep soil can hold much of the Earth’s carbon
  26. Researchers use recycled carbon fiber to improve permeable pavement
  27. WSU Spokane researchers develop potential drugs to help curb smoking
  28. Host plants tell insects when to grow longer wings and migrate
  29. Early warning system for deadly amphibian pathogen
  30. WSU researchers develop sugar‑powered sensor to detect, prevent disease
  31. Emotional suppression has negative outcomes on children
  32. Catalyst advance could lead to economical fuel cells
  33. Researchers develop one‑step, 3D printing for multi‑material projects
  34. Epigenetics study helps focus search for autism risk factors
  35. Researchers map DNA damage links to onset of skin cancer
  36. Researcher warns of possible reprise of worst known drought, famine
  37. PTSD rate among prison employees equals that of war veterans
  38. Measuring the value of ‘imaginativeness’ in new business success
  39. Salmon face double whammy from toxic stormwater
  40. Wine’s origin might affect acceptable price more than taste
  41. Researchers use single‑atom catalyst, convert CO to CO2
  42. Environmentally friendly farming practices used by nearly 1/3 of world’s farms
  43. Positive policing changes after cannabis legalization seen by WSU researchers
  44. Cancer‑fighting drugs also help plants fight disease
  45. Monarchs ride west coast winds: Proof of butterfly migration
  46. Chronic pain remains the same or gets better after stopping opioid treatment
  47. Study shows promise in preventing heart disease in cancer survivors
  48. Genetic mutation drives tumor regression in Tasmanian devils
  49. New technique developed to understand nanoscale biology
  50. Fair classroom practices disarm threat of evaluation retaliation against teachers
  51. Tiny Samurai wasps deployed to fight stink bug invasion
  52. Climate change affects breeding birds
  53. New tool lets citizens help reveal toxic cause of salmon death
  54. Improving information security by giving employees options
  55. WSU researchers extract nicotine from ancient dental plaque for the first time
  56. Green technologies friendly to environment, profits
  57. Rural youth with mild head injuries face higher medical costs, less care
  58. Discovery opens door to efficient research model
  59. WSU scientists clone virus to help stop overwhelming grape disease
  60. Fair classroom practices disarm threat of evaluation retaliation against teachers
  61. WSU to lead new Center for Alzheimer’s Research in Native People
  62. New method could open path to hydrogen economy
  63. How sleep works in the brain — WSU researchers discover clues
  64. Study focuses on impacts of 12‑hour shifts on nurses
  65. WSU professor lands $500,000 grant to pursue lignin to biofuel conversion
  66. Natural cures combined with biomedical devices prompt bone health, growth
  67. Self‑managed health care technology should consider chronic disease patients’ values
  68. WSU research heads to International Space Station
  69. WSU receives $1 million from Keck Foundation to develop self‑replicating materials
  70. Crop‑saving soil tests now at farmers’ fingertips
  71. Sodium battery research could provide cheap, effective lithium alternative
  72. More than half of marijuana users think it is safe to drive high
  73. New WSU disease surveillance research points to targeted vaccination campaigns to fight endemic foot‑and‑mouth disease in rural East African cattle
  74. Blending art, science to reverse biomedical career shortage
  75. Volcanic microbes reveal how humans adjusted to atmosphere change
  76. Researchers target on‑site treatments for contaminated soils
  77. Coho salmon die, chum salmon survive in stormwater runoff
  78. WSU researchers use gold to target, kill cancer cells with less drugs
  79. Plants that fight back: WSU researchers combat parasitic worm
  80. New building system using construction waste explored
  81. Sagebrush hospitality: a home for good bugs can save vineyards
  82. Being overweight increases odds of chronic pain
  83. Self‑fertilizing fish reveal surprising genetic diversity
  84. Aging infrastructure: WSU economist finds best ways to help ag crops flow
  85. Renewable energy offers common ground for Democrats, Republicans
  86. WSU researchers establish new tool to study Cryptosporidium in healthy tissues
  87. Sleep study targets brain processes causing poor decision‑making
  88. WSU Tri‑Cities team researching use of fungi to restore native plant populations
  89. WSU/UI team receives USDA grant to lead national milk conference