Update from CERN communications director on neutrinos (potentially) traveling faster than light
On Friday, I published a post on the news that physicists had potentially discovered neutrinos breaking the speed of light. The story had first been reported by Reuters and the BBC, seemingly ahead of an embargo. As I noted then, the details about how that news was released were a bit murky, but the best I could tell, this wasn’t really an embargo, but a gentleman’s agreement that hadn’t been communicated to all the gentlemen.
In response to that post, James Gillies, the head of CERN’s communication group, tweeted:
@ivanoransky Anyone watching closely enough would have seen the story in the public domain long before the BBC and Reuters reported it.
@JDGillies Fair enough. So why ask other reporters to wait to publish on it?
Gillies thought that was a bit too complicated a question to answer in 140 characters — I agree — so he responded to the message I had sent the CERN press office last week. Here’s his helpful and thoughtful email, which fills in some details, offers important context, and helps make sense of what happened last week:
I’m not concerned about embargo breaking in this case. Before taking you through the sequence of events as it appeared to me, though, it’s important to understand the relationship between CERN and the OPERA experiment. CERN is not a member of OPERA, our role is to provide the beam, and the CERN-side metrology. When OPERA came to CERN asking whether they could hold the seminar at CERN, my management’s answer was yes, once the accompanying paper had been put in the public domain. Normally for a seminar such as this, there would be no press release, but given the potential consequences of this one, we decided that a statement making CERN’s position clear was needed. The statement was duly prepared, and scheduled for issue once the paper was online – Friday morning.
The sequence of events leading up to that is as follows:
1) On Monday, an Italian physicist posted a blog entry on science20 about the OPERA result. This was pulled soon after, but not before some people had seen it. We spoke to some of those people, one was a journalist who told us they’d aim to publish on the day of the seminar.
2) On Thursday, an influential Italian physicist gave an interview on the subject to the Italian newspaper Il Giornale.
3) The same day, the CERN press office briefed agencies with offices in Geneva, along with a number of other journalists, so that they’d have the story ready for Friday morning.
4) On Thursday evening, the story started to appear in various places – not the ones we’d spoken to. I’m not sure what their sources were, but with story like this, it doesn’t surprise me.
5) The agencies released their stories.
6) CERN’s release went out Friday morning.
CERN very rarely uses an embargo – the only times we’ve done so recently is when CERN papers have been published in Nature. In such cases, we give our media material to Nature for distribution with their embargoed press release, and we release ours when the Nature embargo lifts. In this case, we did ask the journalists we spoke to on Thursday to hold their pieces until Friday morning, but with the story breaking on Thursday evening, I fully understand that they released their stories then. Other than that, we never asked anyone to withhold information.
Would we change anything? I think we should. We were not set up to release our news on Thursday evening for a number of reasons. Next time round, we need to be flexible enough to advance our release time if circumstances require it.
I appreciate Gillies taking the time to walk through this, and I particularly appreciate any press office that’s willing to reconsider how they do things. The email also highlights differences between how CERN deals with releases and how other scientific organizations do so.