How to demonstrate you’re not about transparency — and piss off reporters — as a PIO
Ed Yong just wanted to look at the data.
This past weekend, he found an intriguing embargoed press release about mummy toes and prosthetics, and realized that the “study” to which the release referred was actually just a Perspective in The Lancet. When he emailed the press officer who’d written the release, he learned that the actual data weren’t yet published, but that the Perspective was “peer reviewed using the data.”
Readers of this blog are probably familiar with Yong, science blogger extraordinaire. He writes the extremely popular — and award-winning, for good reason — Not Exactly Rocket Science blog at Discover.
So it won’t be a surprise to learn that Yong wanted more information. He understood that there wasn’t a typical peer-reviewed study published yet, but he wanted to at least speak with the author, whose contact information didn’t seem to be anywhere on the web. So he asked the press officer for those details.
That’s where the ridiculousness started, as Yong relates on his Posterous. The PIO, the University of Manchester’s Aeron Haworth, responded:
I think you have all you need for a blog.
That seemed a bit unusual. Yong — who was too polite to name the PIO, which I just did — replied:
Interesting. Do you often tell journalists when you think they’ve had enough material for their reporting?
Haworth (capital letters are Yong’s redactions):
No, but I sometimes have to prioritise requests, particularly where academics are reluctant participants and I have already asked LEAD AUTHOR to do a number of interviews. If you want to email any specific questions, I’m happy to pass them on.
Yong was sympathetic — although I have to ask why academics are reluctant to talk about their work, and will cover this later — but got this “without any further prompting”:
For information, I was a journalist for 15 years, which included being a newspaper editor and a magazine publisher. I am therefore suitably qualified to advise journalists. Your blog articles are about half the length of my press release and certainly a lot shorter than the JOURNAL paper, hence why I wondered why you needed yet more information. Still, I’m willing to forward any specific questions you might have as per my previous email but please don’t try to patronise me. I’m a bit too long in the tooth.
Let that sink in for a bit. A PIO who considers himself “suitably qualified to advise journalists” is telling a journalist — and Yong certainly is one, by any definition — that he has all he needs for a blog.
Who’s patronizing whom? I believe the word you were looking for is projection, Mr. Haworth.
I wish I could say this was an isolated incident. But it fits with these:
- The FDA telling reporters who agree to their embargoes that they can’t discuss the material with anyone for outside comment before the embargo lifts, suggesting they are actually interested in stenographers, not reporters
- The executive director of the American Cetacean Society telling a freelancer he can only have a press pass if it’s a “mutually beneficial relationship” — aka quid pro quo
- The editor of the Annals of Thoracic Surgery telling Embargo Watch sister blog Retraction Watch that the reasons for an opaque retraction were “none of your damn business”
- The New England Journal of Medicine giving reporters just 24 hours with a study, prioritizing their weekly embargo time instead of finding a way to give journalists a galley proof version of studies so they could have more time to scrutinize the findings
What do these episodes have in common? They all give the strong impression that what press officers — and in one case, an editor — at various journals and institutions are looking for are boosterish stenographers, not journalists who apply skeptical scrutiny to findings and announcements. This, of course, from PIOs supposedly representing science, whose participants and advocates love to remind us all of how transparent the process is.
This is a great example of what embargoes hath wrought. They have given institutions the complete upper hand. I’m going to blame reporters here too: Journalists who don’t mind being infantilized have accepted these embargo policies without putting up a fight. There are exceptions, of course, Yong only the most recent.
But it’s time for this to stop. These policies simply aren’t consistent with the free flow of information, nor with transparency. And if they’re a government agency, or promoting publicly funded research, I think there are First Amendment questions. Today, for example, the Association of Health Care Journalists, where I’m treasurer of the board of directors, asked the FDA to re-evaluate its policy. And Denise Graveline, on the always insightful Don’t Get Caught blog, asks whether PR needs its own transparency.
How to fight on? Here’s an idea that might just gain currency in our more transparent world, where it’s never that hard to find out where information came from: Reporters should include a mention of the fact that the materials were obtained under an embargo agreement, and the conditions under which they accepted it, including how long they had to report on the story.
One news organization, MedPage Today, did something similar about a related issue, and announced that they would note whenever a PIO listened in on a conversation. As MedPage Today told AHCJ’s Covering Health blog:
“If a source’s comments are monitored by a press officer, then the person may not have been speaking freely,” said Peggy Peck, vice president and executive editor. “That’s information readers should have.”
Do I think reporters will embrace my embargo transparency approach? I’m reminded of John Rennie’s suggestion to limit “study of the week” journalism: That journalists agree not to publish anything about a particular study for six months. He called it untenable, but wanted to make people think.
Embargo Watch readers can tell me whether this peeling back the layers of the onion policy will make sense, or will help. But I feel strongly we have to do something.
By the way, Haworth was embargoing something for 7 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, February 13th that was published in the February 12 issue of The Lancet — which had gone live on the evening of the 11th Eastern time. So he was putting an embargo on something that was already freely available.
That’s two strikes that make me wonder about his claim that he is “suitably qualified to advise journalists.”
Update (7:30 a.m. Eastern, 2/15/11): There has been a reasonable question from a number of people about whether the Aeron Haworth commenting below is the real Haworth. I emailed him last night to ask, but have not had any responses. He responded to Ben Goldacre, however, confirming that it is him.
Update (10 a.m. Eastern, 2/16/11): Yong and Haworth have both left what will likely be their last comments on this issue, at least for a while. Because of some formatting issues, and the length of the comment thread, I’ve called attention to those two comments in a new post.