Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

What if medical and science reporting was more like legal reporting?

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Brian Reid is a former reporter for Bloomberg who’s now a director at PR/communications firm WCG. He’s written two guest posts for Embargo Watch: one on how the embargo system could break, and another on what moving science reporting upstream could mean for embargoes. In this post, he wonders what lessons medical and science reporting could learn from how journalists cover the justice system.

Brian Reid

Earlier this week, we saw a complex story burst onto front pages with minimal warning: a federal judge’s decision to strike down a portion of the health care reform law.

That made me wonder what medical journalism would look like in an environment in which no one gets a head start on the news – in other words, in which information came out when it came out, and there were no embargoes.

This is not an unimaginable scenario: most working reporters are unaware of what the news will be until it breaks. No one knows whether a building will burn down or whether the Yankees will lose until the moment it happens. That’s why, to use a cliché, they call it “news.”

But medical data has always played by different rules, and the rationale, from the reporter’s side, is simple: medical research is complex and multifaceted, rich in data and situated in a context that can’t be wholly grasped without some time and effort. Plus, it needs to be peer-reviewed. Take away the embargo, the argument goes, and you end up with incomplete reporting that can’t properly place research in perspective. You’d end up reporting the outcomes of games based on who was winning in the third inning, to go back to the Yankees.

Still, the attributes that make published research tricky to report aren’t exclusive to medicine, so this week’s court case seemed an ideal media Petri dish to examine two questions: 1) Can the press handle the instant release of nuanced data and analysis? 2) If legal reporters can pull it off, can medical writers learn to live without the embargo?

The answer to the first question is a qualified “yes.” A quick spin through the next-day coverage suggests that legal reporters had no problems unraveling the 42-page opinion, despite the fact that the outcome was less binary than it seemed at first (Judge Henry Hudson, while ruling part of the law unconstitutional, nevertheless refused to stop the law’s implementation and left the rest of the legislation untouched).

Not surprisingly, the best takes on the story were by seasoned legal and political reporters who had been following the story for months, often with help. (The USA Today piece had a double byline. The Wall Street Journal article cited two contributors, in addition to the author.) These versions were expertly screwed together over the course of the day and clearly reflected a long day of working the phones.

In contrast, the stories that appeared in the first minutes and hours after the decision dropped — particularly those by reporters who were removed from the intricacies of the case — tended to trumpet the obvious headline but shy away from details (the lack of an injunction, the background on the judge, the efforts to limit the scope of the decision). It was the equivalent of reporting a stunning survival benefit from a study, without digging into the side effects or the limits of the trial design.

The answer to the second question — whether the relative success in coverage of the health care decision means medical reporters can live without the embargo — is less clear. There is no question that, given multiple, educated reporters and a full day to make calls and interview sources, brilliant journalism can be produced about complicated subject, and I would expect that my erstwhile peers in the press would be able to rise to the challenge on a daily basis (though it would certainly cause no small about of stress). The work that appeared in newsprint the next day would no doubt be every bit as rich as it is now, though the pain involved in creating it would be greater.

At the same time, the initial coverage of the health care reform decision, though not wrong, was at least inconstant, with many pieces seriously lacking in detail and context. And I would expect the same to hold true of medical stories, with many outlets lacking the time, knowledge or contexts to ensure that the first stories are able to tell the whole story, an issue further complicated by the continuous news cycle. That’s not to say that these problems don’t already exist — as Gary Schwitzer frequently points out — but only that the loss of embargoed reporting could further exacerbate the problem.

That continuous news cycle means, in effect, that we have two standards for news. Those who read the first version of the health care decision stories online on Monday morning got a lousy product compared to those that looked over the print stories with their coffee the next day. That’s part of the trade-off with most news, and there is something to be said for the exceptionalism of medical news, which — thanks to the embargo — ensures that there is one less excuse for bad reporting.

Written by Ivan Oransky

December 16, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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