Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

NIH angers reporters it held at the embargo gate after WSJ scored a scoop

with 3 comments

banner-nihlogoScience biology deputy news editor John Travis was not happy Tuesday morning, February 4:

He wasn’t the only reporter angry at the NIH. Two Nature journalists retweeted him.

Here’s what happened: By February 3, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) had a bead on a partnership between the NIH and a group of drug companies to further research, and was ready to publish a story about it. But at 9:54 p.m. on February 3, the NIH sent this email to its press list:

We are providing the attached press release to you under embargo until 8:00 a.m. ET tomorrow, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, in advance of the NIH press conference on this topic at 10 a.m. ET tomorrow at the National Press Club, First Amendment Room.  The press conference will be held by NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, partner organizations, and a patient.  We hope that you plan to join the press conference to hear from the partners, all of whom will be represented at the press conference, and hear a patient’s perspective.  The media advisory is also attached for your reference.

Then, at 11 p.m. Eastern, the WSJ published this story about the partnership the night of February 3, headlined “Drug Companies Join NIH in Study of Alzheimer’s, Diabetes, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus.” But the NIH didn’t lift the 8 a.m. embargo on the release, despite the fact that the story was clearly in the public domain.

That’s when Travis and others gave them an earful. I asked the NIH for comment, and they responded:

Yes, we’ve touched base with reporters who have expressed concern. We make every effort to get information to reporters at the same time. Every so often, however, a reporter gets hold of story and gets out ahead of us.  In this case, WSJ got hold of the story before we issued the embargoed media advisory and never really agreed to an embargo.  We worked with them to hold the story until the press conference.  Technically, WSJ got the story and we could have just gone with a WSJ story, but we wanted to share the story with other reporters so we did what we thought would allow that to happen. When we thought her story might go before the press conference, we did send an embargoed copy of the release last night at 9:45 p.m. to reporters who RSVPed to the event. It was a bit of a guessing game, but we did the best we could with the information we had at the time. I think most reporters would agree that it’s an unusual circumstance for us.

While this was indeed an unusual circumstance, it’s not unheard of. And lifting the embargo and releasing the information as soon as the WSJ story ran would have been the better thing to do. That certainly would have been sharing the story with other reporters.

Then again, at least the NIH didn’t try blacklisting the WSJ, which is what JAMA did in 2002 when Pat Anstett scored the Women’s Health Initiative story before the journal released any embargoed materials.


Written by Ivan Oransky

February 7, 2014 at 11:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Another story scooped before the official release was Dolly the Sheep. There are still occasional accusations that The Observer broke an embargo. It didn’t. It had a plain old fashioned scoop.

    The surprise here is that the WSJ colluded with the NIH. I guess that is because the American media are more “gentlemanly” than they are in “Fleet Street”.

    Michael Kenward

    February 7, 2014 at 11:38 am

  2. Pays to be cozy with your source. Would be nice instead of looking at health stories as scoops or veiled stock tips or “gotcha”, is to look at them as human interest stories. Hero stories. Feel good. Keep things fair, give patients, Healthcare workers, and researchers the one up. Give them the spotlight. Not surprising. Yes disappointing.

    Mary Gerdt (@marygerdt)

    February 7, 2014 at 12:43 pm

  3. We have had a reporter come to us with a “scoop” on a story for which we had set an embargo. It was a bit of a game of chicken, but we moved the embargo to a day earlier to level the playing field. The reporter with the scoop was not happy, but many of his colleagues had done interviews under the embargo. And they were holding their stories at our request–and now we had information that they were about to be scooped. The situation made us uncomfortable, so we changed the embargo time.

    Coimbra Sirica

    February 11, 2014 at 8:26 am

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