Did some news outlets get a negotiated exclusive on Climate Central sea rise study despite universal embargo?
Last week, Environmental Research Letters published three studies reporting higher risks of floods in U.S. coastal areas, thanks to global warming.
The journal and Climate Central, where the researchers are based, embargoed the news for 10:30 Eastern. But three news outlets — the New York Times, the AP, and my own employer, Reuters — ran stories at midnight, more than ten hours before the embargo was scheduled to lift. (You can see a roundup of coverage by Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit, who notes that the Times “got this out late yesterday, a slight jump on the competition.”)
So what happened? Michael Bishop, the Institute of Physics staffer who handles press for the journal, told me last week:
Along with Climate Central, who also issued a press release under the same embargo, we are looking in to how it happened. If you find out anything yourself, please do let us know.
The lead author of the study, Benjamin Strauss, hasn’t responded to requests for comment from Embargo Watch.
So I’m left not really knowing what happened. I do know that a number of environmental reporters aren’t happy about this situation. I don’t blame them. It seems an awful lot like what happened last month when the journal Neuron decided to give the New York Times an exclusive while making everyone else wait until the embargo lifted.
To reiterate: I have no problem with exclusives. In fact, my team has one scheduled to run tomorrow. If newsmakers think they’re worthwhile, fine with me. But journals and scientists can either use embargoes or exclusives — not both. Apparently, I have to repeat what someone with a lot of experience in communications strategy said when hearing the Neuron story:
It’s either one or the other: you give an exclusive but don’t embargo, or you embargo, but keep that level playing field. That’s what the embargo was putatively designed to protect, see. It is the on-paper or electronic equivalent of a news conference, where (in theory) everyone is in the same “room” and gets to hear the news at the same time, and report on it in the same timeframe, having access to the experts all the while.
And what I wrote in my post:
Otherwise, it’s like telling every jockey to wait for the gunshot, but opening the starting gate for one horse. When the other jockeys are watching the favored horse get a head start, they’re wondering whether they should bother with their end of the bargain next time. And who can blame them?
Update, 12:30 p.m. Eastern, 3/20/12: Bishop adds in an email:
The embargo break was a result of miscommunication about the importance of embargoes between ourselves and Climate Central, who also issued a press release, and we are now looking into processes to ensure that authors’ host institutions are fully aware of the importance that all journalists obey the same embargo for any given paper. We sincerely regret any irritation caused.
This suggests Climate Central’s release either didn’t include an embargo, or had the wrong one. I’m working to clarify.
Hat tip: John Fleck