Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Scrap embargoes? Careful what you wish for, says longtime PR pro

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Brian Reid

Brian Reid

On Tuesday, Vox posted what I called my “embargo manifesto.” I’ve been pleased to see it generate substantial discussion, including disagreement and criticism, on social media. And I’m also pleased to present this guest post from Brian Reid, a former reporter for Bloomberg who’s now a director at PR/communications firm W2O, responding to the piece.

Reading Ivan Oransky’s well-thought out missive against the use of embargoes in scientific and medical communication reminded me of the Winston Churchill chestnut about democracy: It’s the worst form of government, except for all of the others. The embargo system, in which vetted reporters receive additional time to assess and report complex information, in return for agreeing not to publish before a certain time, is also the worst system, except for all of the others.

In Oransky’s view, the current system encourages hype, discourages context and empowers journals and corporations to the detriment of reporters and, particularly, their audiences. Much of that criticism is spot-on.

But what would the world of medical reporting look like if embargoes went away? Certainly different, but probably not better. Here’s what you’d get every Wednesday at 5 p.m. (when the New England Journal of Medicine goes public):

  • THE SPEEDSTERS: Though serious reporters would rather have the story right than first, a small army of specialists will emerge whose remit is to turn the journal manuscript into consumer-facing prose as quickly as possible. Accuracy will be spotty, context will be thin, if it exists at all. But in a world in which the half-life of a tweet is 24 minutes, the eyeballs and money, if not actual glory, will go to the first outlets to get something–anything–out in public.
  • THE CLICKBAITERS: Speed is one way to get something trending on social, which is a coin of the realm for much of the media today. The other is clickable headlines. You think the “COFFEE CAUSES/CURES CANCER” headlines are bad now? Wait until the world’s finest social-media savants start writing headlines on top of a hastily assembled news stories in hopes of virality.
  • THE SPINNERS: The responsible journalists who want to go deeper than the speedsters or the clickbaiters will be in a bind. It’s 5 p.m. Low-quality coverage will be circulating in a matter of minutes. There will be a rush to get comment, ASAP. Medical authorities won’t necessarily be standing by on a Wednesday evening. Instead, self-promoters and PR agencies will emerge to “help provide context.” Reporters will have to decide: lose the news cycle, or take what’s available in the name of depth. Most of the time, neither will be an attractive choice.
  • THE SPECTACLES: One step up from the spinners will be those that seek to “own the news cycle” by “creating the news,” by matching the 5 p.m. data dump with a simultaneous press conference or panel discussion, offering instant commentary and essentially wresting immediate control of the narrative. Can the media resist this kind of event?
  • THE A/B TESTERS: With less time to assess newsworthiness, some outlets will crowdsource, creating small stories–or maybe just tweets–on every possible study of interest. They’ll watch to see what gets clicks, and then they’ll report with more depth on whatever subject is performing best. Professional judgment will be subsumed by the wisdom, such as it is, of the crowds.
  • THE CHIN-STROKERS: Oransky is probably right that, in that swamp of haste and hype and grandstanding, the best health reporters will probably choose to take a pass. The demand for well-reported stories that appear a week behind the headlines is likely to be small, and those professionals will turn their attention will turn to bigger, smarter stories that aren’t pegged to a single result. The problem, of course, is that the embargo system doesn’t forestall those stories right now, so it’s not clear that eliminating embargoes would usher in a new era of long-form reporting. (Though the elimination of the opportunity costs associated with chasing the study of the day would certainly be welcome.)

To be sure, the boiler-room speedsters and the clickbaiters and the flacks and the crowdsourcing crowd all exist now (and, indeed, may represent a growing slice of the media pie). But what the embargo system does is ensure that when 5 p.m. rolls around, news consumers have the option to ignore those voices in favor of thoroughly reported pieces by experienced reporters who have extensive Rolodexes. Take away that high-quality coverage, and the attention doesn’t vanish. It just flows somewhere else. Probably somewhere worse.

All of this is not to say that we need to throw up our hands and declare the situation hopeless, nor that our best reporters should aspire to more churnalism. Instead, I’m suggesting  that scrapping the embargo system isn’t a particularly good cure, in 2016, for what ails medical and scientific communications. Certainly, there are plenty of tweaks at the margins. Ingelfinger has got to go, for starters. And while I have some sympathy for close-hold embargoes for uninspiring legal reasons, there needs to be–at a minimum–transparency about exactly why that tool is used, when it’s used.

We need to continue to turn up the volume on the decade-long conversation about the limits, if not outright failings, of the publication process. I’d be in favor of making every reporter pass a test on John Ioannidis’ “Why Most Published Research Findings are False” before they’re granted embargoed access to anything. (Heck, let’s make flacks pass the same test before they’re allowed to send out a press release under embargo.) And let’s continue to call out lousy journalism, an endeavor for which HealthNewsReview is probably insufficiently lauded.

And–yes–let’s continue to raise awareness of the embargo system, and let’s keep pointing how and where it fails the public. But if we burn the system down, what re-grows will be different, but it’s unlikely to be better.

More by Reid:

Written by Ivan Oransky

December 1, 2016 at 8:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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