Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

So what does it take to get an embargo lifted early?

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Last week, the International Smart Tan Network, which calls itself “the educational institute for the North American indoor tanning community,” put out a press release criticizing a study in the American Association of Cancer Research’s (AACR) Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention that found a higher risk of melanoma among those who used indoor tanning beds. (The press release, as it turned out, cited a guest blog post on relative and absolute risks I wrote earlier this month for the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Covering Health blog.)

The press release named the study’s lead author as well as its name, cited data from it, and even used direct quotes from it. Oddly, the release did not name the journal, instead referring to it as the “June issue of American Association for Cancer Research,” which is not a journal at all.

All of this about a day and a half before the study’s embargo was scheduled to lift.

This seemed like a pretty clear embargo break to me, and the release had wide distribution, so I asked the AACR whether they’d be lifting the embargo early. Associate director of public affairs Michele Leiberman responded:

Barring comment about any particular instance in which an embargo may have been broken, our stance on embargoes is as follows: Embargoes give all reporters an equal opportunity to report a story. Also, with embargoes, there is a greater likelihood that the story will correspond with the publication of base materials required for the story to be comprehended or corroborated.

Because embargoes are a tradition intended to ensure that information is received in context with equal consideration to all parties involved, they facilitate an open and informed dialogue where any and all points of view can then be expressed.  In our view it is highly inappropriate for reporters to break embargoes, especially when the motivation for doing so is self-serving, disingenuous, or with an intent to mislead.

When I pressed Michele to answer my original question, namely why the AACR didn’t feel the need to lift the embargo early for media outlets that had upheld it, she responded:

Although the embargo was violated, we did not feel the extent of the violation, in this case, warranted an early embargo lift.

So I guess I’m still not sure why. And that rationale is quite important to me, it would seem, if embargoes are going to mean anything, and command journalists’ respect.

The incident prompted me to look through the brief Embargo Watch archive. I’ve counted 20 embargo breaks — that is, cases in which the embargoing institution has agreed there’s a break — since starting Embargo Watch in late February. I don’t imagine I’ve caught nearly every break, and 20 is far too small a number to draw any conclusions.

It is, however, large enough to notice some patterns, and possibly generate some hypotheses. Let’s take a look at journals, or publishers, for whom I have a sample size of more than one.

First, those whose polices and interpretation seem quite clear and consistent:

  • Oxford University Press publishes the European Heart Journal and Human Reproduction, among many other journals. I’ve counted three breaks among those two journals since Embargo Watch started — one on a study of chocolate and blood pressure, one on overtime and heart disease, and another on a woman who gave birth to two different infants after an ovarian transplant. In each case, Emma Mason, who handles press for the journals, lifted the embargo quickly, as soon as she had enough relevant information, and alerted her press list — in fact naming the perpetrator. Anyone who wanted to run their own version of the story could do so.
  • There have been four recognized breaks of studies in JAMA and the Archives journals. (There was a fifth potential break that I asked about publicly, but it was of an editorial accompanying a study, not the study itself, and I didn’t hear back from their press office about it.) In most cases, JAMA’s director of media relations, Jann Ingmire, lifted the embargo early, in most cases notifying her press list of the alleged perpetrator, the same way Emma did. One particular example is worth keeping in mind: Last week, Jann did not lift the embargo early on a JAMA study of men and postpartum depression, because by the time Good Morning America broke it, it was only an hour until the embargo time. But she did mention, in a note to her press list, that “the story did not contain any data from the study.” The story did mention JAMA.

Now a look at a journal whose policies I find less clear:

  • There have been two breaks involving papers at Science that the journal agreed were breaks — one on Neanderthal DNA, and the other on J. Craig Venter’s “synthetic cell.” In the case of the former, the Science press office asked two newspapers to take down their versions of the story because they had gone live before the embargo lifted, but did not lift the embargo early. In the latter case, they lifted the embargo early. In a third case, involving the discovery of a hominin in South Africa, one UK paper published a story days before the embargo lifted, naming the study’s lead author and some of the results without naming Science, but a popular blog picked up on the story, and named Science. The journal did not lift the embargo.

Then there are two recent cases involving government agencies, which I find completely opaque, because they granted exclusives to The New York Times on two government reports but refused to lift the embargo for other news organizations once the Times ran their stories. Another government agency, the Institute of Medicine, lifted an embargo on a report they did on salt, after the Washington Post broke its embargo.

What differentiates these cases? Is it naming the journal, even without including any data, as in the GMA-JAMA case? Is it the the outlet that broke the embargo? In other words, if it’s a press release or blog, that doesn’t count, but if it’s a mainstream media organization, it does? Is there a data threshold, below which it isn’t a break?

Or does it depend so much on an embargoing institution’s whims that it’s impossible to say?

Here’s why this matters, and why I think my scrutiny is warranted. At the end of the day, embargoes involve controlling information and withholding it from the public. There may be good reasons for that, but there’s no way around the fact. If someone is going to withhold information — collection of some or all of which may have been funded by taxpayer dollars — there has to be a clear and consistent rationale. That rationale should reflect the stated purpose of many embargoes — better reporting and better-informed stories — as well as fairness to news outlets institutions are asking to wait.

Otherwise, such policies encourage reporters to “shave the serial numbers off” studies, as one early Embargo Watch tipster put it — figuring out where exactly the line is, walking up to it, and knowing full well that your competitors won’t have the same opportunity to tell a story, because they’ll stick to an embargo.

As long as journals insist on embargoes, is that that really what they want to promote?

Written by Ivan Oransky

June 1, 2010 at 1:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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