Why write a blog on embargoes?
A few weeks ago, I wrote a guest post for the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Covering Health blog. In a nutshell, I told the story of an episode involving competing embargoes from the Cochrane Library and the Annals of Internal Medicine and wondered aloud about whom medical journal embargoes are really serving.
If you’re unfamiliar with embargoes: You’ve probably noticed that every major news organization — including mine, Reuters — seems to publish stories on particular studies all at once. Embargoes are why.
A lot of journals, using services such as Eurekalert.org, release material to journalists before it’s officially published. Reporters agree not to publish anything based on those studies until that date, and in return they get more time to read the studies and obtain comments.
That would seem to be a good thing for science and health journalism, much of which is reliant on journals for news because it’s peer-reviewed — in other words, it’s not just a researcher shouting from a mountaintop — and punctuates the scientific process with “news events.”
Vincent Kiernan doesn’t agree. In his book, Embargoed Science, Kiernan argues that embargoes make journalists lazy, always chasing that week’s big studies. They become addicted to the journal hit, afraid to divert their attention to more original and enterprising reporting because their editors will give them grief for not covering that study everyone else seems to have covered.
But even if embargoes are a necessary evil, they’re not uniform, and how each organization deals with them provides case studies in some of the chinks in embargoes’ armor.
I’ve been noodling on embargoes for a while. In November 2007, I wrote about the World Health Organization punishing the New York Times for breaking an embargo on a report on measles deaths. That item was picked up by mediabistro.com’s FishBowlNY and by Slate’s Jack Shafer.
The WHO was hardly the first to punish a major news organization for an embargo break. In 2002, Pat Anstett of the Detroit Free Press published a story on the fact that the Women’s Health Initiative study had found risks to using hormone replacement therapy. Anstett said she got that information from women who had been told the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute was ending the yet-unpublished study. But the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), which was getting ready to print a report on it, along with a full-court press, said Anstett had broken an embargo. They banned her and the Free Press from receiving their embargoed material.
I’ve seen other trends. One is that some journals are releasing more and more embargoed content less than 24 hours before it’s published. I have to admit to being a bit puzzled about how that’s supposed to garner more informed press coverage.
Then there is the response of journals and others to breaks by those who never agreed to embargoes in the first place. There was this kerfuffle, for example, over CDC autism data last fall, involving autism bloggers, the journal Pediatrics, and the CDC.
These stories, as well as comments and other feedback to those posts and to my recent Covering Health post, made me think there was an opportunity for a long-term blog examining trends in embargoes and how they were affecting news coverage. Hence this blog.
On it, I’m going to try to keep track of anecdotes about embargoes. Are they helping journalists? Helping journals? Who’s breaking them? And, most important, are they helping the general public?
My hope is that by chronicling these stories and trends, I can help make embargoes work better. For some, like Kiernan, that may mean doing away with them. For others, it may mean refining them.
I hope you’ll send me your own stories, ideas, and feedback. I’ll agree to whatever embargo you want — as long as it’s fair.