Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Jonathan Leake’s take on the embargo system

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In the course of an email exchange Sunday about an alleged embargo break of a study about predicting the timing of menopause, The Sunday Times’ Jonathan Leake offered these thoughts on the embargo system. I found them provocative and thoughtful, and felt they deserved an airing in their own post:

My early years in newspaper journalism were spent covering political and health issues and these involved attending lots of meetings for which agendas would be circulated in advance. We would scour these agendas to hunt out the issues that made good stories. The aim was always to get these sorts of documents first and find the best stories first. Waiting for a press officer to issue an embargoed press release and then publishing on a date specified by them would have got you the sack pretty fast. The same still applies in most areas of journalism – except science. Why is that?

My view is that science conferences are not that different from any other kind of meeting. And scouring the agenda of science meetings for potential stories is exactly what science journalists ought to be doing.
Conversely, waiting for press officers to decide, on your behalf, what constitutes a story and when it should be published may get you a good showing, in science writing anyway – but it is not journalism. It’s an extension of PR. We’ve all done to some extent but we need to be clear what it is.

The reality is that institutionalised embargo systems sit very uneasily with proper journalism.  Journalism is not a concensual business – or shouldn’t be. Instead it should be highly competitive with writers striving for the best stories and striving to get them first. Embargo systems negate all that.

The embargo system does have a place – I can understand why journals like Nature and Science might want to control the stories surrounding the papers they publish. If journaists want to sign up to that then fine.  It brings a lot of constraints and compromises but it certainly saves writers all the work of finding their own stories and I can understand that too. I’ve used press releases myself of course.

The real issue then is the not the existence but the scale of these institutionalised embargo systems. I suggest that in science the embargo system has expanded to the point where it has shifted the culture of science journalism away from inquiry and enterprise into one where writers are instead judged partly by how obedient they are to an arcane set of rules created by journals and others with vested, often commercial, interests.

The fact that you send me these emails each Sunday morning asking these same questions (to which you already have generic answers) is a manifestation of that. A few years ago it would have been normal to congratulate journalists for their scoops and extraordinary to quiz or criticise them about their sources. Now its the other way round.

I encourage Embargo Watch readers to comment.


Written by Ivan Oransky

June 30, 2010 at 9:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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