Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

A PR pro explains how the embargo system could break

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This morning, I’m pleased to present what will hopefully be the first of many guest posts at Embargo Watch, since the whole point of this blog is to engage everyone involved in embargoes in a conversation.

Today’s guest post is by Brian Reid, of 6 Degrees PR, a strategic communications firm for pharma and biotech companies. Brian’s seen the embargo system from both sides: before entering public relations, he was a reporter for Bloomberg News and freelanced for everyone from Nature Biotechnology to Men’s Health. I quoted him in one of my first posts, on a new embargo policy at the American Thoracic Society.

Here, in a provocative thought experiment, Brian wonders aloud about how the embargo system might come to an end. Mind you, he’s not advocating such a hypothethical world, just suggesting how it might come to pass. Neither am I, for that matter; think about this as you would an 0p-ed that I’m giving space to alongside news reporting on embargoes. In some ways, his hypothetical world is what was in place before Morris Fishbein instituted embargoes during his tenure as editor in chief of JAMA from 1924 to 1949. Or at least that’s when embargoes are thought to have been born. How retro. I promise I’ll get into the history of embargoes, as soon as people stop breaking them and I can find the time

Brian Reid

As Ivan has aptly pointed out over the first week of Embargo Watch, the embargo system is under assault from all manner of accidental embargo breaks, most of them by big media institutions. Despite the attention paid to the wrist-slaps administered to the mainstream media, however, I don’t think it’s likely that the big guys will ultimately bring down the system by breaking embargoes.

The embargo system could still crumble, though. Here’s how it could go down::

There is a lot of embargoed material sloshing around out there. Journals disseminate it. Academic institutions disseminate it. Public relations firms and advocacy organizations do, too. It would be simple for a someone to put up a small website — built in 90 minutes, for free — dedicated to publishing nothing but embargoed information that spills out of all of those places. It could take the form of news stories (tagline: Tomorrow’s Health News, Today!”) or a financial snapshot (Tagline: “Know What the Insiders Know”). This wouldn’t be driven by reporting, it would be purely sourced on poorly controlled embargoes. The upshot: major media outlets, especially business ones, would be forced to match the coverage of the upstarts, unraveling the whole enterprise.

Who would do such a thing?

* Mercenary Journalists: It would be tempting for a freelancer or a recently laid-off reporter to shovel embargoed stuff on to a blog, perhaps even anonymously. Let’s face it, reading JAMA news a couple days in advance would get an audience pretty darn quick: first the financial types would seize upon it, then the newshounds. The hand-wringing media coverage would only add the readership. The end result: a very healthy revenue stream.

* Anti-Embargo Fanatics: Money doesn’t have to be the issue. There are certainly folks who hate embargoes enough to do the same thing, sans the advertising.

* News Outlets Looking to Make a Statement: Might a devil-may-care financial site looking for readers decide to make their mark by becoming an embargo bandit? Certainly possible. How about TechCrunch upping the ante in its anti-embargo campaign by publishing a JAMA release every week, just for kicks? Not beyond the pale.

What then? It’s almost a certainty that violators will be perrosecuted (though anonymity or a lack of remorse would certainly dull any threats, and you can’t take embargoed access away from someone who never had it in the first place). Embargoed media lists would be tightened (though — as anyone who has tried to credential media knows — that’s a tricky, time-consuming process).

In that environment, the only answer may be to do away with the formal embargo system. Some reporters would still get advance copies, but that access would be done in a careful, one-on-one fashion, mostly between big-name journals and big-name media outlets. Everyone else — the public, the journalists, the bloggers — gets the information at the same time.

It will be a brave new world, and we’re only one renegade blogger away from it.

Written by Ivan Oransky

March 3, 2010 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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