Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Break a JAMA embargo, get blacklisted. Then what?

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Adam Feuerstein and Patricia Anstett are part of an elite journalism club.

They’ve both been blacklisted by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), accused of breaking embargoes.

That means the journal will no longer send either of them embargoed material. How did they earn such a punishment, and what effect has it had on their reporting? I caught up with both of them yesterday to find out.

Pat, who has covered medicine for decades for the Detroit Free Press, lost her JAMA press privileges — she prefers not to use the word “blacklist” — in 2002 when she reported that the Women’s Health Initiative had found risks to using hormone replacement therapy (HRT), before the study embargo lifted.

Here’s Pat’s version of events: “We didn’t break the embargo,” she told me by email. “A good source told me there was a huge sea-change announcement coming on HRT so I spent time, starting about six weeks prior to the announcement, talking to doctors who indeed were changing their HRT practices. JAMA’s editor and NIH chiefs sat on this very important news for several months, allowing them ample time to schedule a press conference at their convenience. They gave the news exclusively to a TV network several hours BEFORE the press briefing and their own embargo time for the rest of the media.”

JAMA didn’t see things Pat’s way, told her she had broken the embargo, and revoked her press privileges.

What Pat found most outrageous: JAMA editor Catherine DeAngelis, who is still editor, “even got off her HRT immediately and told her sisters (siblings, plural) to do likewise, weeks before the rest of American women had the privilege of having the info. I know this because she told me so.”

Pat’s press privileges were never reinstated. At first, she “totally backed off writing JAMA studies,” even though she was getting all of the JAMA material from an anonymous source. The longer she did that, however, the more she “realized that journal studies all too often weren’t the most compelling stories to report on a very busy beat. That’s even truer today. We leave most studies to the wires, as many newspapers do.”

Since then, she’s watched the use of embargoed material soar. “Just today, I got an ‘embargoed’ release for 2 p.m. today from the University of Michigan, announcing they are opening on Monday their new diabetes and eye clinical and research building. I’ve seen press conferences scheduled, and material embargoed, to accommodate an appearance of a Congresswoman, on hand to take credit for helping Detroit get a big grant. Where does this end?”

Her conclusion?  “Most embargoes are placed for political or totally self-serving reasons.”

Pat doesn’t feel her career was hurt by losing JAMA press privileges. “It’s a little annoying, but no one ever has told me they wouldn’t talk to me because I broke an embargo. It’s more an inside-baseball issue for journalists who need to look further at why news is managed the way it is.”

JAMA blacklisted Adam in 2003 after he wrote a column for TheStreet.com about why Esperion Therapeutics’ stock had dropped almost 30% in a single day of trading — a Monday. It turned out it was because a JAMA study of the company’s drug designed to limit clogged arteries, embargoed until Tuesday, hadn’t been nearly as positive as investors were hoping.

The company played by the rules of the embargo, and wouldn’t comment until it lifted. Adam didn’t see why they or anyone else had to.

“I’m a reasonable person,” Adam told me yesterday. When he approached JAMA — before writing his column — about the situation, a “spokeswoman said the financial markets are not JAMA‘s concern,” he wrote at the time. “JAMA is focused on publishing medical research, she said, so it doesn’t worry about whether that research is being used by some people to trade stocks.” They told him he’d be blacklisted if he wrote anything about the study.

He did anyway. “Frankly, it’s ridiculous that some people who have early access to the study through JAMA can trade on the information, while others are left in the dark, which is why I’m posting this information,” he wrote.

True to JAMA‘s word, Adam has been blacklisted ever since. He called the journal to ask to be reinstated once a year for three or four years, then he stopped. “I don’t care anymore,” he said. “I wasn’t getting much value out of JAMA anyway. I could count on one hand in 10 years the number of times that something was market-moving.

Instead, he says, most medical journal studies are refined — and peer-reviewed — versions of something that was already presented at a conference, or press-released, and has been worked into a stock price months or even years ago.

His pet peeve? “I have a problem when embargoes become selective disclosure,” Adam told me yesterday. “I wouldn’t have a problem if nobody but the press got the information before the embargo lifts. But you often have a situation in which the journal goes out to relatively large group of people, and at the same time, they place an embargo on discussion and disclosure of the information.”

Adam has also pressed the American Society of Clinical Oncology for changes to how they release their conference abstracts, with more success than he had at JAMA. (More on the so-called “ASCO effect” in future posts.)

He sees some journal editors as out of touch, because there’s so much more of a nexus between business and science today. “I know I often presented a difficult situation for them,” he admits. “They’re more used to dealing with science writers who aren’t working in real time. I say, ‘I’m interested in the science, but on the stock side of things.’ It’s a different perspective, and they don’t necessarily understand that.”

Still, he doesn’t purposefully go out and violate embargoes — and, he notes, JAMA is the only blacklist he’s on. “I do my best to uphold embargoes, but when these situations arise, I think, ‘Who am I most responsible to?’, and my job is not to help a medical journal. It’s to help my  readers understand what’s going on. If that means breaking an embargo because one has already been broken, then I will do that, and if I get blacklisted or barred from a meeting, that’s worth the penalty, because ultimately my readers need to know what’s going on.”

Have you been blacklisted? I’d love to hear from you. I’m also planning a future post on from JAMA‘s point of view on embargoes, of course.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

February 26, 2010 at 8:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

One Response

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  1. Is JAMA’s larger strategy to make journalists more docile and sycophantic, more willing digest and excrete on cue. That’d make sense, and explain why they’re punishing people who did not, in fact, break the embargo, but simply went out an got the information on their own. Such digging must threaten their ability to control the information. Would thousands of enterprising reporters competing for scoops harm JAMA? I’m sure politicians would launch an embargo system if they could get away with it (like the one in Japan). But political reporters are too cut throat, and so are the politicians. Still, consider what political reporting might look like in an embargo system. Would it be more informative and insightful? Maybe it would, but I think we’d miss out on a lot of important stories because the journalists weren’t looking. And, important events have a funny way of transpiring when the information flow is not controlled by the subjects of our reporting. Maybe it’s appropriate for medical journalists to get a little embarrassed that we’ve allowed this to happen.

    Ford Vox

    February 26, 2010 at 3:38 pm


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