Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Did a NY Times reporter moderating a panel break an embargo? Or, what does “for planning purposes” mean?

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Late last week, I got an email from a science reporter who wondered whether the New York Times had been given an exclusive on news about which everyone else had agreed to an embargo. (This is not such a far-fetched idea, as Embargo Watch readers may recall.) The story, “New U.S. Research Will Aim At Flood of Digital Data,” had been written by reporter Steve Lohr, who would be moderating a panel following the announcement later that day.

The science reporter who emailed me knew that not because it was in Lohr’s story, but because it was in a media advisory from earlier in the week that seemed to have been embargoed.

Here are the relevant parts of the media advisory, which came from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy:

FOR PLANNING PURPOSES

March 27, 2012

After giving two media relations contacts, it noted where the March 29th panel would be held, and went on:

MEDIA ADVISORY

WHAT: Researchers in a growing number of fields are generating extremely large and complicated data sets, commonly referred to as “big data.” A wealth of information may be found within these sets, with enormous potential to shed light on some of the toughest and most pressing challenges facing the Nation. To capitalize on this unprecedented opportunity to extract insights and make new connections across disciplines we need better tools and programs to access, store, search, visualize, and analyze these data.

To maximize this historic opportunity-and in support of recommendations from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology-the Obama Administration is launching a Big Data Research and Development Initiative, coordinated by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and supported by several Federal departments and agencies.

The memo went on to list the speakers, who included  John Holdren, Assistant to the President and Director, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Francis Collins, Director, National Institutes of Health. It also noted that:

Presentations will be followed by a discussion featuring a panel of thought leaders from academia and industry, moderated by Steve Lohr of the New York Times.

So, did the Times get a jump on the news because Lohr was moderating the panel? I got in touch with Lohr, who wrote me this detailed email:

Here’s what happened.

About a week after this piece ran in the Sunday Review in February, Tom Kalil of the White House asked me if  I would moderate a panel on big data at the AAAS at the end of March. I looked at the scientists on the panel, and said yes.

I started talking to the panelists — and a couple of the people in the computer science research community I know — last Sunday, in preparation for the panel.

I was told about the NSF-NIH joint announcement, and the names of the other agencies that were going to make grant solicitations or somesuch. By Monday, I told my editor I’d do either a blog item or a short news piece for the paper (and the Web, of course).

I’m not sure anything was sent out under embargo.I never got a draft press release  or anything like that. When I interviewed Kalil on I asked him if there was an estimated dollar figure on all the grants and proposal requests. He said $200 million. So I figured that I had enough for a short news article. It ran at 750 words inside the business section.

The White House sent out a press advisory earlier in the week. So when an editor asked if we had this exclusively, I said no. No one would have had the detail I did, but the White House would have told anyone who called up as a much as I got of the details of the announcements on Thursday.

In a news article, I didn’t mention that I was going to be moderating a panel at the same event. If it were a Bits blog item, I might have, just for fun and a little bit of bragging. But when we’re killing trees, I didn’t think so. First, there is no conflict. The government paid for nothing — not travel, not lodging, not me showing up.

The Times paid for the trip down to Washington, and I sandwiched some other reporting into the trip.

Also, the big data event and the announcements made by the agencies seemed newsworthy, in a modest way.

So, to recap: Lohr had the same access to the speakers as anyone who would have called to ask for more details, and he didn’t mention the fact that he’d moderated he panel because there wasn’t any conflict of interest.

There are two issues here worth some journalistic navel-gazing. The first — whether this was an embargoed announcement that the Times jumped the line on — is more relevant to Embargo Watch. To try and understand the initial White House memo, I turned to someone with decades of experience in government and society media relations:

“For planning purposes” is not that different from a media advisory, and here both are used. In my understanding, it is intended to say “We’re telling you enough to let you decide whether to attend this event announcement without telling you everything that is going on yet, but this document is not intended as the basis for your coverage.” In this case, they want you to know where and when to show up, of course, who is speaking, and a little about what they will say.

So: There is sufficient confusion over what “for planning purposes” means that I can’t see this being an embargo break. This is something government agencies should probably be pushed to clear up — otherwise there will probably be a lot of pissed-off reporters who thought they were doing the right thing, only to see their competitors run with stories.

The second issue is whether Lohr’s role in the panel should have been mentioned in his story. I probably would have done so, mostly because I tend to err on the side of disclosure, and also because I might have anticipated questions such as the one I got by email last week. But that’s a judgement call, not a hard and fast rule, and I don’t claim to have the right answer.

In any case, I appreciate Lohr taking the time to do a tick-tock for Embargo Watch, and I look forward to readers’ comments.

Written by Ivan Oransky

April 3, 2012 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. To me the bigger picture is that a Times reporter was moderating a panel organized by folks at the White House to coincide with the launch of a new government initiative, and that his name and New York Times affiliation were listed on a Media Advisory about the launch event, as a clear draw to get other media interested. Further, the same reporter covered the announcement, in a favorable way and without disclosure.
    I put it this way because I saw the advisory at the time (it is on my beat and might have covered it had I not be on another story) and was definitely more interested in the government plans as a result of aTimes reporting being involved and endorsing them as conversation-worthy. I have been shocked since reading your post and realizing the same reporter also covered that news.
    Where Lohr claims (and you agree) that there is no conflict, he takes a far narrower view of his responsibility than his paper’s ethics policy at http://www.nytco.com/press/ethics.html That prohibits any public relations work — paid or unpaid — warn against accepting any benefit that could look like a trade for positive coverage (Lohr indicates himself being asked to moderate the panel was not worth nothing to him where he mentions the possibility of “a bit of bragging”), and suggests caution before doing a speaking event for a party that you cover. There is a far-reaching stipulation that editorial staff may not do “anything that damages our reputation for strict neutrality in reporting on politics and government,” which getting listed on a White House Media Advisory about your participation in a forthcoming announcement event clearly does. Perhaps that sentence is too restrictive (subjective), but it is still interesting to see the reality of practice so far out of line with the policy.
    This isn’t intended to suggest that a reporter cannot ever act as a speaker or moderator of a public panel (I have occasionally done both). I just think, if the invitation comes from a source, or possible source, you need to be careful about the nature of the event and how it will be advertized and interpreted (this is responsible toward your source as well as readers), and that being packaged back-to-back with a line-up of government presentations/ a White House announcement and press release, is an error of judgment. I would suggest, either be involved, or cover it, don’t do both (op-ed formats or blog posts to which a disclosure is appended may be ok, but this was a straight news piece).
    Lohr says he disclosed his involvement to his editor and Times management (who paid to get him to the White House launch). He is also right that the story and news were modest. However the level of comfort that the editor and his management apparently had with his involvement may point to a culture with bigger consequences.

    essreich

    April 6, 2012 at 11:26 am


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