Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

BBC breaks embargo on distant gamma ray burst story from AAS, but won’t face sanctions

with 3 comments

The BBC broke an embargo yesterday on a description of the most distant gamma ray burst ever detected, which was being presented at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Boston. The news was embargoed for 2 p.m. Eastern, but the story went online about 20 minutes before that. I understand that reporters waiting for a press conference scheduled for 2 p.m. in Boston were a bit irritated to see the BBC’s story.

AAS press officer Rick Fienberg tells me he heard about the break from Daniel Fischer, and contacted the BBC’s Jonathan Amos, who wrote it. His email concluded:

It is AAS policy to remove embargo breakers from our press list for a minimum of 6 months. I’d sure like to avoid having to do that in this case — but I need a good reason.

Following Amos’s acknowledgment of the error and apology, Fienberg responded:

Thank you for the explanation and apology, both of which I accept. Rather than punishment, here’s an admonishment: check, double-check, and then triple-check the embargo time on the original release and/or with the press officer who issued it. Put another way, check the science with the scientists, but check the embargo details with the press release/press officer.

Amos tells Embargo Watch:

As I explained to Rick this was my first embargo break in the 25 years I have been at the BBC, and I am mortified. As I suspect on many of these occasions, it is cock-up, not conspiracy.  Somehow I had got it into my head that the digits “1800” at the top of one of Rick’s embargoed release was “BST”, not “GMT” as was the case; and I had even repeated the “I understand this embargo time is tied to 1800 London time” to Antonino Cucchiara (lead author) and Paul O’Brien (co-author) when I spoke to them by phone the day before. Because of this confusion in my head, we actually thought we were being quite relaxed publishing the story 40 minutes after the embargo time when in reality we were publishing it 20 minutes before. As I explained to Rick, this is not something I take lightly. There is nothing clever about busting embargoes; there is nothing smart in running a story first that everyone else knows about and has agreed to publish at a specific time.  I am also conscious of my responsibility, holding a prominent position in the BBC, to adhere to the embargo rules. A casual approach to such matters from the BBC damages its reputation and the wider science embargo system which benefits us all. Rick has admonished me, quite rightly, and it is a reminder that however long you’ve been in the business, you continue to learn. In my experience, most of the embargo busts – if not all – that have occurred in the office where I work (and there have been precious few) have resulted from the kind of foolishness described above. They are not wilful breaks made in the misguided belief that some advantage or kudos will follow. Again, my apologies to all who may have been affected by my incompetence.

It’s of course Fienberg’s call whether or not to sanction the Amos or the BBC, and leniency for a first infraction over 25 years seems reasonable.

But what I particularly like about this exchange is Fienberg’s — and Amos’s — willingness to be so open about it. It’s a sharp contrast to what the U.S. Census and European League Against Rheumatism did recently, announcing that there were embargo breaks but refusing to say who had committed them.

I’ve argued before that journals and institutions should “name and shame” embargo breakers. More often than not, it’s simple human error, as in this case, and really not a big deal. Any reporter unwilling to acknowledge such errors probably shouldn’t be working in journalism. And when an institution won’t detail the circumstances of the break, nor say whether they’re sanctioning someone, it is impossible to tell whether that institution is being consistent.

Another reason the AAS stays on the Embargo Watch Honor Roll.

Hat tip: Eugenie Reich

Written by Ivan Oransky

May 26, 2011 at 11:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. All this could have been avoided easily if people would stop calling world time “GMT” (which can easily be mixed up with “BST”) and use “UTC”, Coordinated Universal Time, instead – as is being recommended internationally since the 1970s! As e.g. http://www.usno.navy.mil/USNO/astronomical-applications/astronomical-information-center/universal-time explains: “Greenwich Mean Time is a widely used historical term, but one that has been used in several ways. Because of the ambiguity, its use is no longer recommended in technical contexts.” Strict embargo times in the internet age are certainly a ‘technical context’ …


    May 26, 2011 at 2:05 pm

  2. “London time” is ambiguous. Currently it is GMT+1 (=BST), but in the winter it is GMT. He has my sympathies, as I expect he’ll be catching his trains and living his life under “London time”

    PS: GMT==UTC all the time, so no ambiguity there (at least on a human scale)


    May 26, 2011 at 3:50 pm

  3. Both Fienberg and Amos have already indicated that they will use “UTC” from now on.


    May 26, 2011 at 5:00 pm

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