Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

AACR joins the Embargo Watch Honor Roll with a new policy on sanctions

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The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) has a new policy that’s a breath of transparent air into what can be an inconsistent area that many organizations would rather sweep under the rug: How to sanction embargo breakers. (Yes, I mixed some metaphors.)

Here’s the policy, which the AACR tells me they’ll be announcing today:

The American Association for Cancer Research supports quality scientific journalism, and recognizes that comprehensive stories take time and careful preparation. Toward that end, the AACR Office of Communications often releases material early under embargo to credentialed journalists. This process requires trust and responsibility on the part of both parties.

Violation of embargoes puts that trust in jeopardy and the American Association for Cancer Research takes embargo breaks very seriously. However, we recognize that journalists and other media professionals occasionally make honest mistakes and we do not want these to permanently damage the relationship between the association and the media.

Therefore, each embargo break by a journalist or outlet will be investigated by the American Association for Cancer Research Office of Communications. If the break is determined to be accidental, we will expect the outlet to take internal steps to make sure their processes are corrected. After assurances both verbally and in writing that these steps have been taken, the AACR will maintain the press credentials of the offending organization.

However, repeat offenders will face sanctions including removal from mailing lists, dismissal from meetings and the possible removal of ability to cover future AACR events.

I asked Jeremy Moore, the AACR’s assistant director for science communications, what prompted the move, and whether it was spurred by a particular AACR embargo break. (Here’s the Embargo Watch collection of them, including one in which AACR broke its own embargo with a tweet.) He spelled out the organizations rationale in a thoughtful message that’s worth reading from start to finish:

There was no episode in particular that prompted this. Embargo breaks tend to be sporadic, but we had been struggling with a workable sanctions policy. Our office had been thoroughly investigating each embargo break and it always seemed to be the case that rather than the writer or editor who reported the news, it was the error of a posting editor down the line who didn’t read the time or date correctly.

I suppose anyone could claim something was a mistake, but my investigatory phone calls always resulted in prompt return calls from a senior editor who would offer to take it down, apologize profusely and make sure steps would be taken so that it wouldn’t happen again. If the gap between the break and my office knowing about it was short enough, then the embargoes would hold. If the outlet was too broad and the article was already all over the Internet, then we’d have to declare a break and proceed accordingly with the posting of the release, the announcement, etc.

The question was how do we sanction the folks who break embargoes? At the American Association for Cancer Research I am the primary contact with the scientific media. I have relationships with writers, editors and senior producers who cover our meetings and journals, write their stories, and then send the content down the line to their home offices where the mistakes usually happen. If I choose to cut off access, who do I ban? The writer? Or a posting editor in New York who I’ve never met, likely will never meet, and has likely been disciplined by his or her company already? 

Interestingly, for all the embargo breaks we’ve had (and you’ve reported on all of them) there has never been a repeat offender. This says to me that the embargoes are the results of mistakes that are corrected internally and made sure not to happen again. That’s the way it usually works in media and editorial, where I’ve worked my entire career, and I suspect what happens in other fields as well.

In public relations we talk all the time about “relationships.” Usually this means “who do you know?” But relationships, to be effective, have to have a level of trust. The AACR sends out embargoed materials to credentialed journalists because we trust that they will use the time to do the necessary interviews, vetting and research (not every medical reporter has an M.D.) to write complete stories that will educate the public and that they will sit on the news until the embargo breaks. 

Violate that trust once, and it’s probably a mistake. Violate that trust more than once, and you clearly don’t respect embargoes and your access to my office and to early materials will be severely restricted.

We wanted to sanction those who flagrantly violated, not those who made honest mistakes.

I applaud the AACR’s clarity here, just as I liked  a policy they were part of at a 2010 conference. Too often, organizations won’t say whether they’ll be punishing a particular embargo breaker — something the AACR has always been happy to tell me, with only one exception as far as I can tell. Or groups’ embargo policies have vague language suggesting sanctions may be imposed, but leaving so much leeway that in reality no one ever loses access.

It’s not hard to understand why journals and societies wouldn’t want to piss a reporter off, especially by denying access to the very material they want that reporter to cover. But that’s the point: A lack of sanctions just reminds me and other embargo watchers — and yes, they’re out there — that one of the main reasons for embargoes is to increase the chance something will get covered.

I’m not arguing for this kind of consistency because I want to find ways to make journalists’ lives harder, trust me. I think a “one time error is OK” policy is just fine. After all, I find some sanctions — such as those of Pat Anstett and Adam Feuerstein — indefensible.

But restricting the flow of scientific information — which, regardless of intentions, is what an embargo does — comes with a big responsibility to make sure that the conditions under which reporters agree to embargoes are 100 percent clear. This is a step toward that, so welcome to the Embargo Watch Honor Roll, AACR.

Written by Ivan Oransky

January 17, 2012 at 9:30 am

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