Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

No sanctions, but Straits Times perpetrator “taken to task” over overtime-heart disease embargo break

with 4 comments

The embargo break earlier this week of a study in the European Heart Journal linking overtime to heart disease was unintentional, and there will be no sanctions against the breaker, the Straits Times. That’s according to an email just sent out by Emma Mason, who handles press for the journal and others published by Oxford University Press:

I have now had time to properly investigate the circumstances surrounding the broken embargo on the European Heart Journal story earlier this week (overtime and heart disease). Having talked to AFP it has become clear that it was not their fault. Their story was put out with the correct embargo on it, but one of their clients, Straits Times (Singapore), made a mistake and published the story early. AFP have spoken to Straits Times over this; ST have assured AFP that it was a mistake, that the perpetrator has been taken to task about it, and the rest of the team has been reminded about the fact that “embargoes are sacred”.

In view of the fact that a) it was not AFP’s fault, and b) they have had discussions with Straits Times, I have decided to take no further action over the embargo break.

I have to ask: Given that this was Singapore, was caning involved?

The episode, however, combined with AFP’s break of an embargo on a study of chocolate and blood pressure in March, and another break by a French website in February, has evidently given Emma pause, and she is considering a change to her embargo policy:

However, as this is now the third time that one of my embargoes has been broken in as many months, I am now considering issuing my embargoed press releases only 24 hours before the embargo lifts, rather than 48 hours, in order to minimise the chances for such mistakes in the future. I realise this will give you less time to talk to the authors of the research and write your stories by the time the embargo lifts, but I’m sure you can rise to this challenge. If any of you have any views on this, please don’t hesitate to email me.

Here’s an open letter to Emma as per her request for comment about a 24-hour embargo:

It will probably come as no surprise to Embargo Watch readers that I’m against shortening embargoes, as long as they exist. I’ve been compiling episodes of such short embargoes, with a cutoff of 24 hours. But that doesn’t mean I think 24 hours is the right amount of time. It’s just, as I put it yesterday, that I have to start with some threshold.

I can understand Emma’s frustration. It’s conceivable that less time between embargoed release and lift will lead to fewer breaks. Less time for people to push the wrong buttons, for example.

But it’s absolutely clear that less time will give reporters less time to report, and I’m just not sure how that’s in anyone’s interest. In today’s instantaneous news cycle, combined with massive cutbacks at journalism outlets, reporters and editors are under even more pressure than ever. Just read the more than 1,000 reviews of stories at HealthNewsReview.org for evidence of problems in medical journalism.

Finding time to adequately report a complex finding is difficult even with several days, but when there isn’t even time to spread that reporting out over more than 24 hours, it’s a recipe for more and more superficial coverage. I really hope journals aren’t shortening embargoes because they think they will get more flattering or unskeptical coverage that way. After all, getting that outside commenter who has time to read the study and say something intelligent — and perhaps critical —  in less than 24 hours is going to be difficult.

Put another way: A skeptic — and I have to consider myself in this group — will use this as more ammunition to question journals when they claim that embargoes help journalists and the public. It’s clear how shortening them will help journals. But not so clear is how this helps the rest of us.


Written by Ivan Oransky

May 13, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

4 Responses

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  1. This is clearly a very difficult and complex problem to unravel. I think, and I think most of your readers would agree, that embargoes are there to help reporters by giving them adequate time to write and research the story accurately, and get independent comment if they want to. To do this, at least 48 hours is really what is needed, especially when you take into account the different time zones in which everyone is operating. The problem is, that if embargoes keep getting broken, either accidentally or intentionally, then it doesn’t help all the responsible reporters, because then they have to rush to get their stories written and out in an even shorter time frame than they would have had with a 24-hour embargo.

    So what is the best way forward? One person has suggested to me that I should try to get all the wire agencies who don’t already do this, to agree to either put out embargoed stories only when the embargo lifts, or only a few hours beforehand – 12, 4, 3 or 2 hours for instance, rather than 36 hours beforehand. This would reduce the chances of the stories being used by the agencies’ clients, but it might be worth a try and I’ll talk to the agencies about it. Any other suggestions (that I haven’t already received) would be welcome.

    The response that I’ve had from my media contacts has been great, and really helpful, although the decision about what to do is still as difficult as ever!

    Emma Mason

    May 13, 2010 at 5:03 pm

  2. P.S. As far as I know, no caning was involved – just slapped wrists all round! One contact did suggest the guillotine would be a suitable punishment………

    Emma Mason

    May 13, 2010 at 5:07 pm

  3. No — please don’t cut to 24 hours, Emma! Having time to interview authors, gather responses etc is important, but only one of the reasons why adequate advance notice is helpful.

    I’m sure I’m not the only reporter who plans my week around embargoed events we know we want to cover. I fix my off-diary visits, phone interviews etc, and my column and feature writing, for days when I’m not already aware that a big story is going to require writing to deadline.

    What that means is that with a 24-hour embargo, the bar for news value goes up significantly. A story that I might have been able to cover with sufficient warning will not be covered, simply because I’m out of the office or otherwise occupied. And even if it’s a big story I feel I have to drop other things to do, it’s deeply irritating, interfering with my ability to get out there and do my own reporting.

    Short embargoes are not only inimical to thorough reporting of new papers. They’re also inimical to original journalism, by making it harder than ever for reporters to plan their time.

    Mark Henderson

    May 14, 2010 at 9:55 am

  4. I’m a former journo turned PR guy. From my current perspective as a PIO/media liaison for a large research university, shorter embargoes also don’t help the researchers I work with – it means less time for them to respond to and do interviews. They’re certainly already crunched for time as it is (disclaimer: my views are my own and may not represent those of my employer).

    Patric Lane

    May 14, 2010 at 12:31 pm

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