Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Another government agency upholds embargo, on supplement safety report, despite a New York Times exclusive

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Remember the President’s Cancer Panel report on environmental causes of cancer, the one a PR agency gave The New York Times‘ Nick Kristof to run with while holding every other reporter to an embargo?

Well, a similar thing happened this morning: New York Times reporter Gardiner Harris had an exclusive on a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the safety of herbal supplements, but the Senate committee where that report is being delivered this afternoon told everyone else it was still embargoed until 2 p.m. Eastern, as originally planned. From Gardiner’s story:

The report, which was prepared by the Government Accountability Office, was provided to The New York Times and will be made public at a Senate hearing on Wednesday.

This involved the Senate Special Committee on Aging, where the report will be presented, as well as the GAO, so I wasn’t sure who held the embargo. The GAO told me they don’t release testimony before it’s delivered, even under embargo, and suggested I check with the committee, which had released the report under embargo. That committee’s press office, which upheld the 2 p.m. embargo, declined comment.

Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with exclusives. And without knowing who gave Gardiner the report, it’s unclear whether he’s really violating an embargo to which the Times has agreed. Nor is it clear whether the very agency that embargoed the information actually gave it to Gardiner first.

Neither exclusives nor leaks are my beef here. The Senate committee probably thought it was being helpful by releasing the report under embargo, giving journalists time to read it. No argument with that either. My beef is with not lifting the embargo when faced with what a number of reporters I’ve spoken with saw as a clear embargo break. (And a number of news outlets just picked up the Times story and ran their own versions before embargo.)

The Institute of Medicine did the right thing last month, when faced with a break by the Washington Post.

If a government agency, or anyone else, wants to give someone an exclusive, it should go right ahead. If reporters at competing institutions don’t like it, they can ignore the agency, complain, work harder, or whatever they see fit. But I don’t see why the agency should ask those reporters to live by embargoes that someone else clearly didn’t have to live by — whether because of a leak from that same agency, or somewhere else.

I’ve got an idea for the next Government Accountability Office report: How about a study of whether government agencies are playing fair when it comes to embargoes?

Written by Ivan Oransky

May 26, 2010 at 2:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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