Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Did USA Today break the embargo on Pew Prescription Project report on drug safety?

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An Embargo Watch tipster emailed this morning suggesting that USA Today had broken the embargo on a Pew Prescription Project report on whether U.S. voters trust the drug supply. USA Today‘s story went up sometime last night, as per usual for a story in the print edition, but the contents of the report itself were supposedly embargoed for sometime today, to be discussed during an 11:30 a.m. conference call with reporters.

I asked Pew, and they responded:

Yes, USA Today broke the embargo.

But that’s not consistent with what USA Today‘s Rita Rubin emailed me in response to my questions:

Pew came to us and said we could run the story Tuesday, the day they were having a press conference to announce the findings and Bennet’s bill. There was never any mention of an embargo, either in interviews or in print.

We posted the story when we usually post stories. Linda Paris then said we should have posted it at 12:01 a.m. (first mention of that), but it was already up. We told her it would be complicated to remove it, and she didn’t seem terribly upset. She complimented me on the story this morning.

I asked Linda if she had any further comment based on Rita’s email. I was struck, I told her, by the discrepancy between saying someone had broken an embargo but not being very upset about it. Most embargoing institutions are furious when that happens, but Pew linked to the story on their “in the news” page sometime this morning. Linda said she didn’t have any comment.

I don’t know Rita that well, but I do know her well enough to say with confidence that she’s not careless about embargoes, nor does she run out to break them. Quite the opposite. In a March post, I quoted one of her tweets about a still-embargoed report. She had already checked if that was OK with agency embargoing the information.

So while USA Today‘s story may have appeared before the Pew intended for the embargo to lift, I can’t agree that the paper broke any embargo. It’s possible Pew meant to detail the embargo and didn’t, in the rush of preparing for its release, but it really wasn’t clear when the embargo was lifting. If it was 12:01 Eastern, that really should have been made clear when the materials went out. Rita doesn’t seem to have known what time it was, and it’s routine practice for a “Tuesday” story to appear online the night before. And at least one Embargo Watch reader thought the embargo lifted at 10:30 Eastern this morning when Pew said they would post their report.

Confusion seems to be the main message of this story. Or maybe there’s some difference between how Washington-based government and non-profit embargoes work and how they work elsewhere. (AAAS/Science is more similar to other journals, I should note, so they would be a Washington-based exception.) I’ve been puzzled by other DC embargo incidents, for example giving someone an exclusive while keeping an embargo for everyone else — as the agency representing the President’s Cancer Panel did for the New York Times‘ Nick Kristof did. That episode, too, involved a column from the following day’s print edition that went live the night before.

As always, the comment thread is open.

Written by Ivan Oransky

August 3, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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