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    Coffee with a Journalist: Aria Bendix, NBC News

    Aria Bendix is the breaking health reporter for NBC News Digital. She covers a variety of health-related topics, with an emphasis on mental health, medical conditions, and public health issues. 


    During the episode, Aria talks about a pitch that provided an entry point to a story she wanted to write, she dissects subject lines in pitches that lack detail, shares how to format pitches to her preferences, and more. Let's dive in. 


    Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.


    Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:




    CWJ View Transcription CTA



    Aria's Inbox and Organization


    [00:02:47] AB: It's manageable. There are hundreds of emails. Like everyone else, I assume, who comes on the podcast. But I have a nice system, I think, for moving through it quickly.

    [00:02:57] BB: Well, do tell. What is the system?

    [00:03:00] AB: Well, I think it's just really a one-sentence shot for people, and if it doesn't really pass muster after the first sentence, I'm not going to dive deeper into the email. And that just allows me to move through things really quickly.


    [00:03:14] BB: Oh, so let me ask you, do you see like the one-sentence email or the one sentence previewed on your emails and judge by that, or do you judge it all by subject line?

    [00:03:24] AB: Some get filtered out with the subject line alone, and then if anything seems credible, I'll go into the actual body of the email and then see what the sentence looks like.


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    Aria's Favorite Pitches


    [00:03:40] AB: Yeah, subject line wise, I tend to be pretty straightforward in my preferences, just because health, you don't want to get too creative with what you're pitching. So one of the ones I liked the other day was I had gotten a pitch that said, 'Public health MD shares update on urgent medical needs of hostages.' And this was obviously related to the Israel/Hamas conflict. I was looking for an entry point on my beat to that story since everyone is writing about it. And I thought that was just the perfect subject line because it had public health in the title. So we obviously knew that they were the right person on the money MD. That tells me who the source is. And then two words in there that stuck out, update and urgent.

    [00:04:24] AB: And often those words are used hyperbolically in subject lines, but in this case, they were not, because obviously this is an urgent story, and the person I interviewed had new information actually to share. So I did end up writing a couple of posts for our live blog on that story. And it was all because the subject line grabbed me initially.

    [00:04:44] BB: That's great. And was it from a publicist team?


    [00:04:47] AB: It was from a nonprofit, so I think they want to get the message out. But in this case, I think, yeah, that was the best way to connect to what was happening on the ground there.

    [00:04:56] BB: Wow. I like it. Okay, do you have another one? Perhaps?

    [00:05:00] AB: I do. I mean, the rest of mine that I really enjoy, they're all expert-related. I think it comes as no surprise that on the health feet, you're always looking for sources. So anytime I can see that in the subject line is great. What I just got this morning know, abortion rights on ballot in Virginia, Ohio feminist and gender expert available for comment. So it is directly telling me the news and then what they're offering. So that's a win-win in my.

    [00:05:30] BB: Ooh, I think that's a good point there for just subject lines is encapsulating what is in reference to. And then the expert. I think so many people just send subject lines like MD on abortion rights. And you're like, okay. And you being in more breaking news and national stuff would be like, yeah, I see how this ties. But isn't it so nice when it's a very clear tie?


    [00:05:52] AB: Absolutely.

    [00:05:53] BB: Yeah.

    [00:05:53] AB: You need to know what they're willing to comment on.

    [00:05:56] BB: Yes.

    [00:05:58] BB: And sometimes I'm getting the news from that subject line itself, which is even better. Maybe it's a story I missed. And I think, oh, shoot, should I be paying attention to that? Because I was working on something else that day. So it's really nice too, when I'm actually informed of a story that I may have escaped my radar.


    [00:06:16] BB: Oh, look at that. Okay, so then what do you do with the emails, the pitches that are just not a fit?

    [00:06:23] AB: I try to respond to ones that are credible or even ones that I have a preexisting relationship with. Unfortunately, I am a ghoster sometimes in the sense that no response is the response because of the volume. And I do get a lot of consumer products or just pitches revolving around a specific company, which I'm sure a lot of journalists do. But on my beat in particular with healthy, you just want to be really careful to avoid those and so much of my inbox that I just have to pass right away.



    Aria's Journalist Pet Peeves


    [00:06:56] BB: Yeah. Why do you think that happens, by the way? Why are you getting those bad pitches?

    [00:07:01] AB: I understand there are very small companies out there looking to make a name for themselves and probably a lot of interesting products, but you want to go to someone who actually does reviews. Maybe from the reader's perspective, there's not such a clear delineation always of what is a consumer review versus a standard piece of journalism. And we could do a better job of that too, making that clear, and especially in our own bios.

    [00:07:27] BB: Yes, perhaps so that's a very generous answer. By the way, Aria, you're not saying no one's reading my articles, they just bad pitch me. Okay, so sometimes you ghost because you have to, but otherwise. Oh, do you keep just kind of your own Google file of your email? So when you need to search and find someone, you just do your own searching through your inbox?

    [00:07:50] AB: I will do that. But I think you may know this from interviewing previous NBC Universal reporters, that we are that news organization that deletes our emails after 60 days. So we are not able to search our inboxes as extensively as some other news organizations. So I do have a Google spreadsheet with sources that I am interested in or ones that I've spoken with in the past, and so I can at least hang on to things that seem promising.

    [00:08:18] BB: Oh, okay. So you got your own sheet. How do you get on the sheet?

    [00:08:21] AB: It's just things that are on my beat. I sort of separate it by subject matter. I'm looking often for some sort of credentials when I'm talking about an expert source. So working for a university affiliated with a hospital, that type of thing often comes up. 

    [00:08:38] BB: Is there any complaint you have about publicists?

    [00:08:43] AB: I think we're all doing our job, and it should be a symbiotic relationship.

    [00:08:49] BB: Yes, it should in theory.

    [00:08:51] AB: And I think doing your research, obviously, is really important. Specificity in the language of what you're pitching. The other day, I got a pitch for an expert who has some great insight on emerging trends in health tech, which tells me nothing. Right. What's insight? What's the trend?

    [00:09:11] BB: Yeah.

    [00:09:12] AB: So I think my gripe is just not giving me enough information to make an informed decision, and I don't know if it will waste my time or not. Right. If I don't know what you're suggesting that I write about. And then I guess overhyping of pitches is one thing that comes up a lot.

    [00:09:29] BB: Oh, such as?

    [00:09:31] AB: So when something is, they're saying it's innovative or groundbreaking or paradigm innovative. It usually is not like a good idea will sell itself. It will speak for itself. And so you got to get rid of the buzzwords. Maybe some people look for it, and that piques their interest. In my case, we just want to be wary of anything that comes off a bit hyperbolic.

    [00:09:56] BB: Yeah. That is a fallacy of PR people. Unfortunately, I don't know what that disease is about, but yes.



    Embargoes vs. Exclusives and Communication Styles


    [00:10:29] BB: Okay, what about exclusives or embargoes?

    [00:10:33]: AB: Love both. I mean, as a journalist, obviously, I want to be first to everything. So I'm not ashamed to admit that I do perk up when I see the word exclusive in a subject line. If it's a false advertisement, though, it kind of has the opposite effect of putting me off, so if people are pitching something like an exclusive, everyone is trying a new trend on TikTok. That's not an exclusive story. You get a little upset when you see that. Embargoes are my bread and butter as a health reporter. So most of the big studies are sent to me under embargo, that organizes the bulk of my coverage. It's a word that heavily populates my inbox.

    [00:11:13] AB: So always happy to see that, because as a health reporter, it tips me off that this is something. If they're putting it behind embargo, they've been planning for it, and it's probably a decent, credible study.

    [00:11:24] BB: Okay, is there anything you're working on right now that you think about how you're going to source? In other words, you're like, okay, I got a story that I need on this. What's your protocol? And I don't usually ask this, but anymore, in earlier episodes we would. But just like, how do you go about crafting the sources for a story?

    [00:11:44] AB: That's a really good question. I think it depends on the type of story. Obviously, if it's a more patient-focused story, which I'm doing a feature right now on young individuals sort of in their twenties and thirties who have been diagnosed with colon cancer. And so finding those patients is difficult because it can sort of feel like you're sending messages out to the void. So I do sift through my inbox to see if anyone has pitched something related to colon cancer. Reach out to nonprofits, to medical orgs, hospitals, even old doctor contacts that I know they treat this disease. Do they have any patients in their roster that they're willing to connect me with? But I'm always open to finding more ways to do that because the patient ones are the most difficult ones, often to source.

    [00:12:34] BB: Okay, everybody hear that? Patients. Patients, having those lined up. Okay, then I already asked about just kind of the articles and kind of sussing out that relationship building then. So someone's never worked with you before. Maybe they have some patients, they're listening to this show. They have that MD that specializes in such and such cancer. What's the best way for someone to make a connection with you but also keep it going? I think that's the other piece, one and done of like, hey, we did a story once together. Fine, but keep it ongoing.

    [00:13:06] BB: How would you suggest?

    [00:13:07] AB: Yeah, I mean, I am a big fan of email first, and then once we have established that relationship, I do like text messages and I will accept the occasional call. Yeah, I have to be on my work phone a lot. So I find that a quicker way to message, and it feels a little less formal that we can easily trade pitches or yes's or no's back and forth via text. I don't think a cold text is the best approach. If I know you are, I'm happy to respond that way.

    [00:13:40] BB: Okay. One of the first people I've ever heard for texting. And so email first. Maybe eventually you upgrade to text. Do you ever see people in person?

    [00:13:51] AB: I used to in the earlier days of my career. I think they're still building sources. At this point. I feel like I'm a little more spirit. Yeah, you got coffee dates and such. But again, I think if it's someone that I have worked with in the past and I feel like we are aligned in terms of what they're trying to pitch and what I cover, that can be a productive coffee date. Right. To talk a little bit more about what's on my radar.

    [00:14:15] AB: And even if we do it virtually too, that I'm happy to do that. Especially since not everyone is based in New York.

    [00:14:21] BB: So maybe an eventual upgrade to a coffee date. Okay, everybody noted. First email, then text. Maybe coffee.


    Rapid Fire Pitching Preferences


    [00:14:29] BB: Okay, how about a rapid fire session here, Aria, I have some quick questions and you can give us your blazing answers.

    [00:14:37] AB: Okay, let's do it.

    [00:14:38] BB: Let's do it. Okay. Video or phone interview?

    [00:14:42] AB: Phone interview. I use a transcription service. I really like to highlight quotes as we're talking, and it's really hard to do that with video. So I do love the phone.

    [00:14:51] BB: Bullet points or paragraphs in a pitch?

    [00:14:54] AB: In a pitch, bullet points. But everywhere else, paragraphs. 

    [00:14:58] BB: Short or long pitches?

    [00:14:59] AB: I like short, but not too short. So I want the top-line summary and then two or three key details just so it's not too vague.

    [00:15:07] BB: Images attached or a Dropbox zip file?

    [00:15:11] AB: I actually don't have a preference. I think with this one either is fine. If they're good images, they're good images. I'll find a way to open them.

    [00:15:18] BB: And we alluded to a little bit with the email, but email or how about a Twitter or X DM? Are you on X?

    [00:15:25] AB: I am. I'm not as active as I used to be, so I don't think that's the best way to reach out to me. I think I am an email person through and through.

    [00:15:34] BB: Yeah. Okay, Sidebar. What do you think is going to happen with X? Is it MySpace?

    [00:15:40] AB: It feels like a very fraught time. I might defer that to my tech reporter colleagues in terms of the journalistic landscape. I think we're trying to find other ways to connect with sources and to get our news, and it's just not there anymore in my mind.

    [00:15:56] BB: I will plead the fifth on saying more, but okay, let's continue. One follow-up or multiple?

    [00:16:02] AB: I think one follow-up is a nice reminder and then any more becomes a nuisance. Yeah.

    [00:16:07] BB: Direct or creative subject lines?

    [00:16:10] AB: I'm direct. Yeah. Especially with my beat. When you get too cute with it, it's hard for me to understand what.

    [00:16:16] BB: You're pitching and watch that hyperbole. As we discussed, press releases or media kit?

    [00:16:22] AB: I think media kit, but I'm not really picky either way.

    [00:16:25] BB: And then is there a time you read pitches?

    [00:16:28] AB: I read most of the pitches in the morning with my coffee as I'm sort of sifting through the inbox, and I am deciding at that point what I'm going to write about for the day. Usually I like to wrap up my stories in the evening and then start fresh in the morning.

    [00:16:43] BB: Okay, one a day and then start a new day.

    [00:16:45] AB: I do monitor the inbox throughout the day, though, which I'm trying to get better about not clicking on every email that comes up.

    [00:16:51] BB: Yes, aren't we all? And then we also talked about sources. But if you want to elaborate on the types of sources you really are gobsmacked for.

    [00:17:03] AB: Yeah, that's a good question. I mean, sort of broad strokes. I'm looking for doctors, nurses, scientists, public health officials. And then from the patient perspective, I really would like to see stories that I've never seen or heard of before. I can give an example from the other day. This was a PR person who I had established a relationship with, with another story. And she did call me the other day, late on a Friday, and pitched this couple, who had been married for 63 years, and they essentially had heart attacks right around the same time.

    [00:17:36] BB: What's right around the same time? Like the same day.

    [00:17:39] AB: That's what they think. I mean, it's hard to tell the exact moment sometimes because it wasn't one of those ones that required immediate surgery. But they went into the hospital together, and they had back-to-back surgeries in the same hospital, were recovering in next door rooms, essentially. If you've seen the notebook, it was kind of like the notebook couple, just going through this health scare together, and luckily they're fine. But it was one of the stories that I didn't know was medically possible. And it was just so heartwarming that they had recovered and were doing it together. He was sneaking into her group to take care of her, I thought, I write this even though it's late on a Friday

    [00:18:16] BB: Yes, it's very touching.

    [00:18:18] AB: Yeah. So something I've never heard of before is always a good.

    [00:18:22] BB: Oh, okay. Send her something she's never heard of. Okay. Aria, is there anything you want to promote, talk about, emphasize, whatnot? What you got?

    [00:18:36] AB: I'll plug a recent feature I wrote alongside my colleague Alicia Lozano about the mental health crisis in Maui.

    [00:18:45] BB: Yes, I'm looking at it right now. Yeah, two days ago.

    [00:18:48] AB: Yeah, it took us months to report this one. Alicia took several trips there. It was pretty heartbreaking to write about, but I think an important story. So if people want to take a read, we'd appreciate it.

    [00:19:04] BB: Yeah, I'm looking at it right now. How many trips did she do, by the way?

    [00:19:08] AB: I think she's done a couple thus far. She might even have a few more planned. We're really hoping to continue to monitor the situation and do so. You know, mental health is something we didn't talk about, but that's also something that I am constantly writing about and it's an important part of health and health care. So that story was the big story in my mind.



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