The FDA has been using embargoes to manipulate journalists. Here’s how.
Embargo Watch readers may recall a few episodes over the years involving the U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA), in which the agency tried to turn reporters into stenographers. In 2011 and 2014, journalists were required to agree not to speak to any outside sources before an embargo lifted, if they wanted access to the information ahead of time.
The 2011 incident made me a little, well, let’s say outraged, and the Association of Health Care Journalists, on whose board I’ve sat since 2002, wrote a letter to the FDA about the policy. The FDA reversed itself, which I cheered. But they went back to their old tricks in 2014, this time ending up on the radar of the New York Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan.
Despite the frustration and publicity, the FDA doesn’t seem to have made any changes. And in the new issue of Scientific American, my New York University Institute of Journalism colleague Charles Seife reveals
a disturbing picture of the tactics that are used to control the science press. For example, the FDA assures the public that it is committed to transparency, but the documents show that, privately, the agency denies many reporters access—including ones from major outlets such as Fox News—and even deceives them with half-truths to handicap them in their pursuit of a story. At the same time, the FDA cultivates a coterie of journalists whom it keeps in line with threats. And the agency has made it a practice to demand total control over whom reporters can and can’t talk to until after the news has broken, deaf to protests by journalistic associations and media ethicists and in violation of its own written policies.
The picture — drawn largely from emails Seife obtained using Freedom of Information Act requests — is disturbing indeed. Here’s a gem, from the FDA’s Erica Jefferson to the Times’ Sabrina Tavernise — a reporter who had the temerity (oh, the horror!) to mention the conditions under which she had obtained the information:
I have to say while I generally reserve my editorial comments, I was a little surprised by the tone of your article and the swipe you took at the embargo in the paper—when after combing through the coverage no one else felt the need to do so in quite that way. To be clear, this is me taking stuff personally when I know I shouldn’t, but I thought we had a better working relationship than this…. I never expect totally positive coverage as our policies are controversial and complex, but at least more neutral and slightly less editorialized. Simply put, bummer. Off to deal with a pissed Fox News reporter.
In case it was unclear: Tavernise did the right thing given the circumstances. The FDA did the wrong thing, by creating the circumstances.
The piece, which quotes me, Sullivan, and Vincent Kiernan, on whose shoulders Embargo Watch has stood for years, will hopefully make a lot of reporters look in the mirror and realize that whether it’s with a journal, a company, or a government agency, agreeing to embargoes has serious costs. Sure, when there aren’t any restrictions other than time, they can help tell a better story. Perhaps that’s worth the corralling of coverage that results, with us all stampeding on the same studies week after week.
But the nonsense that the FDA — and another government agency, which did reverse itself — has pulled here is possible because so many reporters have become accustomed to getting their bales of hay at the same time every day, and being content with that. I think some are legitimately scared of what a life without embargoes would be like. I’m not.
Kiernan has the last word in Seife’s piece — which I’d urge you to read in its entirety — and I’ll give him the last word here:
I don’t know that journalists in general have taken a step back, [looking] from the 50,000-foot view to understand how their work is controlled and shaped by the embargo system.