Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

How does a four-hour embargo give the media time to do a good job?

with one comment

One of the reasons you hear most often if you ask journals why they embargo papers is that reporters will have more time to write better stories. The New England Journal of Medicine is no exception. From their press kit:

The Journal embargo policy is designed primarily to ensure that physician subscribers have their copy of the Journal at about the same time their patients hear about new research through the news media. It also gives the media time to learn about a topic, gather relevant information, and interview authors and other experts so they can accurately report complex research findings.

Evidently, yesterday, four hours was enough time. At 11:13 a.m. Eastern, the Journal sent a message to their embargoed press list saying that they would be publishing a study on whether bisphosphonates — a drug used to treat osteoporosis — actually led to a higher risk of a particular kind of broken bone. The paper would be available on the Journal’s embargoed press site at 1 p.m. Eastern, and the embargo would lift at 5 p.m. Eastern.

That was four hours “to learn about a topic, gather relevant information, and interview authors and other experts so they can accurately report complex research findings.”

Mind you, there was an entire issue of NEJM whose embargo was lifting at exactly the same time. We had already devoted resources to covering studies in it, as had others. I was baffled. So I asked Jennifer Zeis, who handles NEJM’s media relations, whether there was a particular reason for the short embargo. She responded by email:

The short embargo period was not planned. There’s no sense of urgency with regard to the content, but there was a delay in giving more advance notice to reporters due to unforeseen circumstances in getting the files complete on time.

I appreciate the quick response, but I’m still baffled. What exactly was the rush? Journal subscribers couldn’t have had access to the study before their patients did, either — the other stated reason for embargo — if the problem was getting files together.

We ended up scrambling to cover the study, and we weren’t alone, as coverage suggests. I don’t really mind scrambling; I work at a wire service. I’m not sure I see the need to scramble for an artificial “news peg” like an embargo though.

Sure, it’s still an editorial decision on whether to cover the study. And I thought that we should: The study had found that bisphosphonates were not linked to an increased risk of the particular kind of broken bones,  which was “timely because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been reviewing data on this issue,” as we wrote in our eventual story for a physician audience.

When it’s important for your readers to learn about, and you know your competitors are going to cover it, how much of a choice do you have?

Others, such as Vincent Kiernan and Larry Altman, have pointed out just how much embargoes help journals. In the abstract, I have no problem with that. Self-interest is only human.

But I’ve noticed more and more short embargoes. This probably wasn’t the first four-hour embargo of a significant and complicated study, but it’s the first one I’ve noticed since starting Embargo Watch about a month ago. And I can’t square a four-hour embargo with the claim that embargoes helping journalists write better stories.

Written by Ivan Oransky

March 25, 2010 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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One Response

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  1. Ivan – I suspect that eventually, embargoes are going to go the way that the publishing industry is going; out the door. The shortened time period seems to be a harbinger, where business interests take precedence over integrity. I would like to believe that medical journals operate differently but at the end of the day, it is often about being first to the stage, no?


    March 25, 2010 at 10:27 am

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