Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Did NASA follow its own code of conduct in announcing the arsenic bacteria study? (Hint: No)

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I’ve tried to stop writing about NASA’s non-alien arsenic bacteria, I really have. But as Michael Corleone said in The Godfather III, “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.”

This afternoon, Denise Graveline — who knows a thing or two about embargoes and media relations, having held leading communications and media roles at organizations including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — pointed me to the “NASA Policy on the Release of Information to News and Information Media.”

Feel free to read that document at your leisure. When you do, you will find this section:

(h) All NASA public affairs employees are expected to adhere to the following code of conduct:

    (1) Be honest and accurate in all communications.
    (2) Honor publication embargoes.
    (3) Respond promptly to media requests and respect media deadlines.
    (4) Act promptly to correct mistakes or erroneous information, either internally or externally.
    (5) Promote the free flow of scientific and technical information.
    (6) Protect non-public information.

So how has NASA done in the week-plus following their press release that included the ill-considered phrase “extra-terrestrial?”

I’ll go point by point, starting with the easiest: They held up their end of (2), keeping to the embargo until Science lifted it an hour and 47 minutes early. And (6) is probably not relevant; if it is it’s related to the embargo, so thumbs-up there too. I’d give them a check for (3), based on my own experience; senior press officer Dwayne Brown was quick to respond to my queries, and I haven’t heard any complaints on that score. (Whether NASA was responding the way reporters wanted them to is another question, but they were quick.)

Now to (1). In the interests of bending over backward here — commenters, feel free to disagree — I’ll give NASA a partially met. I’m thinking that original press release was technically accurate, but as I noted, used ill-considered language that rendered it inaccurate in practice.

But it’s (4) and (5) where NASA gets a big fat fail. Before the embargo lifted, they did absolutely nothing “to correct mistakes or erroneous information, either internally or externally.” And while they couldn’t do their part on (5) until after the embargo lifted, they’ve stood in the way of “the free flow of scientific and technical information,” not promoted it.

In comments to me and others, as I noted in yesterday’s post, Brown made it clear NASA scientists would not be responding to critiques in blogs or by “credible media organizations” — whatever that means. One of their scientists, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, has at least acknowledged those criticisms, although that’s not the same as a response.

So, NASA, out of six of your own code of conduct’s criteria, you’ve scored a 3.5. That’s less than 60 percent — something I probably don’t need to calculate for a bunch of astrophysicists, but I did anyway.

It’s a fail.


Written by Ivan Oransky

December 8, 2010 at 4:20 pm

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