Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

The things I can’t write about…yet

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photo by stevendepolo via flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/

I recently heard about an accidental embargo break. In a nutshell, the writer realized he and his editor had screwed up time zones, and they yanked down the item within about 15 minutes of it being posted.

But you won’t be reading any details of that incident here on Embargo Watch, because beyond the fact that the break happened, the rest of what I learned was off-the-record.

I could, of course, go to the embargoing institution and ask if they’d heard about the break. But that would be betraying a source’s confidence, so I won’t. And the evidence, such as it was, is gone.

To draw an absurdly dramatic parallel: Philadelphia Inquirer Nancy Phillips found herself in a very difficult ethical position about 10 years ago, when a source she “had cultivated for almost five years tearfully confessed to her that he had arranged [a] gruesome murder,” as was later recounted in the American Journalism Review.

The confession came off the record, however, so Phillips didn’t – and wouldn’t – go to police. At the time, the police hadn’t nailed the murderers yet. There was a satisfactory, if not happy, ending: The source later pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter charges and agreed to testify for the prosecution.

Just to be clear: embargo breaks are not murder. They’re not even illegal, unless they somehow involve insider trading. But the ethics of revealing an off-the-record conversation are the same, no matter whether the alleged offense is murder or pressing the “publish” button.

And lest anyone is reading Embargo Watch carefully enough to wonder whether this post contradicts my post earlier today suggesting that journals should in fact “name and shame” embargo breakers for the sake of openness: I don’t think it is. Those breakers are, to stay with the metaphor, the guilty parties. I’ll leave the judge and jury bit to the journals, whose policies I’m much more interested in judging myself. I’m just not going to be making any citizens’ arrests, particularly not when someone has confided in me.

This won’t be the case when there’s what looks like a break, and the responsible outlet hasn’t done anything to reverse itself. The evidence is just sitting there, and anyone can find it. Then, I’m very likely to contact the embargoing institution to find out if they know about the potential break, and what they plan to do, if anything.

That brings me to mention that there’s another situation brewing this week that I can’t write about until some more dust has settled. I have, after all, agreed to all the same embargoes I cover here. That doesn’t mean I’m not poking around to find out more. I’m sure those of you who may have asked me for my take will understand.

How’s that for cryptic?

Written by Ivan Oransky

April 7, 2010 at 11:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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