Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

US Chemical Safety Board embargo policy turns reporters into stenographers

with one comment

us csbThe U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) released a damning report last night about a fatal 2010 explosion at a Tesoro refinery in Washington State. But to get an embargoed copy of that report to prepare a story, journalists had to agree to some terms that should make most of us uncomfortable.

Here are those terms:

We are providing this embargoed, advance copy of the CSB’s interim report that you may have adequate time to review and study the document prior to the embargo being lifted at 10 pm on January 29, 2014 and you agree to the following:

  • Not to duplicate, distribute, or publish any contents or characterizations of the report prior to the embargo time
  • Not to contact any other party, including Tesoro as recommendations recipients for comment prior to the embargo time of 10 p.m. PST on Wednesday January 29, 2014.
  • Not to use this document to confirm or refute any characterization of the presentation by any other source, whether or not that source was subject to an embargo
  • Not to break the embargo even if another media outlet does so

The first bullet is pretty standard, and the last is kind of silly. But the second and third points are unusual and alarming because they turn reporters into stenographers for the CSB. Any story that went live at the embargo time could only include the CSB’s position.

As I’ve noted before, another government agency, the FDA,  tried this once, but later reversed themselves after questions from the Association of Health Care Journalists, where I’m a board member. And Gilles Seralini and colleagues made the same demands of reporters when they published their now-retracted GMO-rats study.

Here’s what I wrote about the FDA policy before they changed it:

Sorry, folks, but this is an outrageous abuse of the embargo system — which, after all, is an agreement between two parties. One of the main reasons for embargoes — if you take many journals at their word — is to give reporters more time to write better stories. Part of how you do that is talking to outside experts. And scientists — ones interested in science, anyway, not those interested in spin and political points — should welcome that kind of scrutiny.

That applies to the new CSB policy, too. Change “scientists” to “government agencies” and “science” to “transparency” if it helps you see it better.

We asked CSB’s public affairs office to explain their rationale. They tell Embargo Watch:

We requested this embargo because we were meeting with victim family members in Anacortes – we wanted to present the findings to them prior to having the information appear on the nightly news.

That explains the rationale for an embargo overall, but it doesn’t say anything about the two problematic points. We’ve asked them for further clarification and will update with anything we learn.

Hat tip: John Ryan


Written by Ivan Oransky

January 30, 2014 at 11:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Thanks for raising this. We hadn’t given it much thought but will review those embargo policy statements in light of this critique. We developed the statement a few years ago in response to various media outlets breaking embargoes on reports, on the theory that this would provide a more orderly process. Happy to give it a second look.

    Daniel Horowitz – CSB managing director

    Daniel Horowitz

    February 1, 2014 at 11:53 am

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