Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Science reporters play the access game too: What embargoes have to do with Greenwald, Snowden, and Assange

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nsaDo science reporters, on a smaller scale, make the same kinds of deals for access as political reporters? Recent criticisms of Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange have led me to mull that question.

David Carr, the New York Times media columnist, wrote this week:

It’s not surprising that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who brokered the publishing of Private Manning’s documents, and Glenn Greenwald, the columnist for The Guardian who has led the Snowden revelations, have also come under intense criticism.

What is odd is that many pointing the finger are journalists. When Mr. Greenwald was on “Meet the Press” after the first round of N.S.A. articles, the host, David Gregory, seemingly switched the show to “Meet the Prosecutor.” He asked, “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?”

He also noted:

This week, Michael Grunwald, a senior national correspondent at Time, wrote on Twitter: “I can’t wait to write a defense of the drone strike that takes out Julian Assange.” (He later apologized, perhaps reasoning that salivating over the killing of anyone was in poor taste.)

(Disclosure: I worked with Grunwald at The Harvard Crimson in college.) Carr quotes Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who also refers to comments by CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin (more disclosures, my wife works at the network):

“By no means was I treated as a hero when I first came forward. I was indicted and spent two years in court,” Mr. Ellsberg said in an interview. “But in those days, journalists were not turning on journalists. With Snowden in particular, you have a split between truly independent journalists and those who are tools — and I mean that in every sense of the term — of the government. Toobin and Grunwald are doing the work of the government to maintain relationships and access.”

So, how are science reporters like those national reporters criticizing Greenwald and Assange?

Consider: When Jonathan Leake regularly publishes a story in The Sunday Times ahead of embargo, reporters grow exasperated, frequently accusing him of breaking an agreement. But as Leake has made clear any number of times, he’s never agreed to any embargoes, so he’s not breaking them.

Leake is not the only target. Reporters who’ve agreed to embargoes are subject to even more resentment from my various tipsters and commenters. And bloggers who aren’t even given the opportunity to agree to embargoes can unleash their own venom.

But, you’re saying, quite appropriately on at least two levels, “Ivan, this isn’t a matter of national security.” No, it is not. At least not most of the time (see second item here.) And journals and other scientific institutions — in fact, including some government science agencies — do make materials accessible to reporters, unlike some other government agencies, say, the NSA.

The embargo system is still, however, a case of journalists agreeing to let powerful institutions dictate terms of coverage in exchange for early access. Last week, Carl Zimmer called the embargo system “cozy dysfunctionality.” I spend a lot of time on Embargo Watch criticizing those who embargo information, but embargoes would have no power if journalists didn’t agree to or even insist on them, no matter what the reason — more time to report, leveling the playing field, etc.

Insert “the sanctity of the peer review process” for “national security,” and the arguments start to look very similar. (Worth noting in this tangled web: Journalism organizations sometimes self-embargo when they’re concerned about national security, or their own staff.) And scientists are complicit too; many of them like the gag order of the Ingelfinger Rule.

If this comparison makes my science journalism colleagues — and me — uncomfortable, good. The real question is whether embargo agreements keep science reporters doing what they should be doing: Keeping scientific institutions honest. Let’s think about our roles in the ecosystem, as former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller did in Carr’s column:

Mr. Keller said the relationship with sources and competitors on coverage was always fraught with peril, but technology has created significant disruption to both the business model and the practice of journalism.

“Stuff that used to happen in a sedate place with a kind of Robert’s Rules of Order have now turned into the World Wrestling Federation, with everybody piling into the ring and throwing punches,” he said. “There has been a tendency for people used to a more decorous world to bristle at the characters who have acquired prominence in this new world.”

Those Robert’s Rules of Order made the system relatively well-organized and workable for everyone — a mutually agreed upon “we might miss a story” meets “we might miss some coverage.” The Internet’s openness upsets that apple cart every day, but sometimes that means we learn what that apple seller is hiding under a bushel.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

August 28, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. The principle difference that I see is that with Wikileaks, Snowden etc., and the reporters who cover that, are dealing with materials that otherwise were not likely to be made public, or at least not made public for years if not decades.

    Agreeing to the rules of embargo for scientific research affects materials that will be made public, and the restrictions are a matter of only a few days. A reporter gains advance access for the purpose of writing a better and more complete story, one of many such stories that will be published about the same time.

    The alternative to an embargo for science writing is likely to be the scientist or institution giving or “leaking” the story to an individual news outlet; with others either less likely to write about it and/or more likely to follow the direction of the initial story (try convincing an editor that you know more than prestigious publication X and they got it wrong). The net result is likely to be less coverage, less diverse coverage, and less thorough and thoughtful coverage.

    Bob Roehr

    September 2, 2013 at 2:43 pm


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