Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

It’s poll time: Are preferential embargoes kosher?

with 11 comments

photo by secretlondon123 via flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/secretlondon/

The New York Times acknowledged yesterday that Nick Kristof and Hager Sharp, a PR agency representing the President’s Cancer Panel, about which Nick was writing, knew Nick’s column on the subject would appear before the embargo on the report to which every other journalist had been subjected.

So I’d like to know what Embargo Watch readers think about this practice. Should institutions, journals, and PR agencies be able to give a preferred outlet the right to publish, while making every other outlet agree to an embargo? And should journalists abide by these embargoes?


Written by Ivan Oransky

May 7, 2010 at 2:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

11 Responses

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  1. Hmmm, tough question. Sounds like a ‘gradual release’. Choosing the first journalist to get out with the article, hoping that the first one is the best and will write a good article, knowing that all the others coming after will just regurgitate what the first journalist wrote (or at least check it and learn, so their articles are not as atrocious as they would be otherwise) – a way to make sure the general media coverage is of higher quality than usual?

    Bora Zivkovic

    May 7, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    • Annoying as all get-out, unless, of course, you’re first in line. Using an embargo to do this seems clumsy, though. In the old days it was called an “exclusive”, and PR people would take the trouble to keep the information private, rather than taking the cheap and easy embargo route.

      Nancy Shute

      May 7, 2010 at 2:29 pm

      • I agree with Nancy, though, in the old days, an exclusive also meant you were willing to give up on anyone else covering it–and so you wouldn’t be choosing that tactic plus an embargo. I’m also guessing that everyone involved figured 20 minutes or so wouldn’t matter much to everyone else…not that that’s a correct assumption, mind you.

        Denise Graveline

        May 7, 2010 at 3:13 pm

  2. I think Nancy is on the right track. Exclusives are common, though usually undisclosed — but if news from the White House or the secretary’s office of a Cabinet agency, or new product news that will move a market, just happens to show up in a single national publication, everyone who works that beat generally knows what happened. It works in part because of the news value of the planted story, because everyone hopes they will be the favored one next time; but also because there is no trail you can use to bust whoever planted it. This adding of embargoes, to guarantee the exclusive, was a stupid move on several axes; it established that a story was planted and also made clear who did the planting. Would you trust a future pitch from Hager Sharp? I wouldn’t.


    May 7, 2010 at 4:00 pm

  3. I’m in university science communications, so that puts me in PR. I voted yes that PR folks should be allowed to do this, but I say that with the opinion that 99 of 100 times I’d say such practice is dead wrong, because I work at a publicly funded (well, barely) state institution.

    There are instances when the best interests of the university may be better served by giving one media outlet a first go at a story.

    Technically, this is the exclusive approach. I am not too thrilled with the idea of putting out release to many at the same time with it wide open to one but under embargo to others. Bad approach.


    May 7, 2010 at 4:17 pm

  4. I agree with Jim that it should be possible, but done rarely and for a good, specific-to-that-case reason. However, the real issue is whether press releases about scientific research should routinely be embargoed, and to that I say no. An embargo should be the extreme exception, justifiable by some aspect of the story itself, not the norm.

    Harvey Leifert

    May 8, 2010 at 5:30 pm

  5. I don’t believe in preferential treatment for individual journalists except insofar as deadlines are concerned – that is, I give daily news media access to spokespeople before weekly, monthly, etc.

    Ruth Seeley

    May 10, 2010 at 3:51 pm

  6. If a sharp reporter gets wind of something before a press release has gone out, PR folks should strongly consider giving them an exclusive, and not issuing a press release until after they’ve broken the story.

    Issuing an embargoed release, and then letting one outlet break the embargo, is a tactic that should only be used under the rarest of circumstances.

    I’ve experienced the opposite problem: A big university press office offended me by putting out a press release on a rather esoteric, but fascinating, study that I’d learned about by combing through the NLM clinical trials database. I’d contacted the lead researcher directly and had been talking to her for a month. They knew that I was planning a magazine article, and it wouldn’t be in print for at least a month after the embargo date.

    Aaron Rowe

    May 10, 2010 at 4:04 pm

  7. Hah, I had to vote to find out what the scores were, curiousity got the better of me in the end, despite not being a PR/comms person or journalist.

    I voted No, but consider myself a science blogger, perhaps a few others didn’t vote either for the same reason.

    I’m cool with the idea of exclusives, especially for the big outlets. Embargoes are good for science data when it being presented at meetings such as ASCO or for a publication date, one should respect the researchers, but for more routine stuff it seems rather pointless sometimes.


    May 10, 2010 at 4:06 pm

  8. Joining this a bit late, but:

    I think if you want to offer an exclusive, it needs to be for a good reason and with the best reporter for the task. But it shouldn’t also be embargoed, especially less than 48 hours out. It can breed hostile attitudes in media against those who put out these hybrid releases.

    So, I say either or.

    That’s dichotomous thinking, but it solves some of the problems here. What it doesn’t solve is fairness, as Nancy hints at. Exclusives aren’t fair to journos who don’t get them, but when you have one it’s a good feeling.

    If you do the best writing you can, manage your contacts well, stick to tried-and-tested principles of journalism, etc. — aka work your ass off — people will notice. And you’ll eventually earn those exclusives. Survival of the fittest.

    Dave Mosher

    May 14, 2010 at 10:52 am

  9. Harvey is well-known, and well-respected, for his opposition to embargoed releases. And I think he has a good point. But the mainstream media still considers embargoed releases like meat before a hungry dog. Until that changes, we’re stuck with embargoed releases. Contrary to Jim, however, PR folks shouldn’t do this because of its inherent dishonesty. While there’s short-term gain, there’s long-term loss of trust. We’ve never supported “exclusives” even though they may aid the institution issuing the release.

    Earle Holland

    May 18, 2010 at 5:14 pm

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