Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Did an advocacy group just take a step toward a dreaded “close hold embargo?”

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public citizen hrgOn Monday, an email from a reporter landed in my inbox with a subject line that began: “FOR EMBARGO WATCH.” My immediate reaction was one of guilt; as readers know, I have not been able to find a fraction of the time I’d like to write here. But then I opened the email, and saw a curious thing.

Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, which is more than a little media savvy, was sending a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Office of Human Research Protections (OHRP), criticizing how studies of ketamine had been conducted. Nothing all that unusual there; it’s the kind of thing the Health Research Group does regularly.

This is what struck my correspondent as unusual:

EMBARGO RULES:

Public Citizen will send its letter to the FDA and OHRP on the morning of Wednesday July 25. The letter is embargoed until 12:01 a.m. EDT on Wednesday, July 25. Please do not share the letter with anyone else until after the embargo is lifted.  You may share the gist of the letter with the letter recipients and others for comment starting at 12:00 pm EDT on Tuesday, July 24.

In other words, Public Citizen wasn’t merely embargoing the letter. They were telling reporters they couldn’t even discuss the letter with anyone until 12 hours before the embargo was scheduled to lift — nearly 24 hours after they sent the material to reporters — and then, they could only discuss the gist of it.

Now, in a perfect world, reporters would have endless time to call sources, collect points of view, and synthesize them into a story. But we’ve never lived in a perfect world, and we certainly don’t live in one now, with news cycles that restart every time a certain someone tweets. So I wasn’t hugely bothered by the time constraints. Reporters could always use that first 24 hours to get their ducks in a row, and then use the other 12 efficiently. (Or they could ignore the news altogether.)

But what did bother me was the “do not share the letter with anyone else until after the embargo is lifted” line. Even with the “gist” sentence afterward, that sounded a lot like a “close-hold embargo,” which the FDA — one of the targets of Public Citizen’s letter — has used off and on since at least 2011 to manipulate press coverage over the years. In a close-hold embargo, an agency, company, or other organization gives reporters access to material in advance, but on the condition that they not interview anyone about it before the embargo lifts. Hello, stenographers.

Certainly there were some differences here. They key one was that Public Citizen wasn’t placing any restrictions on who reporters could speak to. But why the restriction on sharing the document? If I were asked to comment on a letter I couldn’t see myself, I more than likely wouldn’t. And reporters seeking outside comments on embargoed studies would be foolish not to share the entire studies.

So why would Public Citizen handle the letter this way? I contacted Michael Carome, the director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, who had sent the letter to reporters under embargo. On Tuesday afternoon, we spoke for a while.

Carome told me that he felt the embargo on the letter was “substantially different” from the close-hold embargo practiced by the FDA and at least one other government agency. “It’s fine for people to talk to whomever they want,” he said. “We put no restrictions on who they spoke to,” unlike the FDA’s move, which he called “extraordinary.”

In what Carome said was a routine practice, Public Citizen asked reporters not to share the actual letter “because we worry that once it gets out of the hands of reporters, those sources aren’t bound by the embargo. We said you can talk about the gist of the letter, the main points we’re making, the concerns we have. I’d be fine if someone wanted to read key parts of the letter to someone on the phone.”

I pressed him on this, pointing out that reporters routinely share embargoed studies with sources, after making it clear that the papers are under embargo. If someone doesn’t want to abide by an embargo, they can pass on the opportunity to comment. At the very least, having the paper in front of them makes it less likely it will be misconstrued if a reporter summarizes it. Wouldn’t that be true of the letter, too?

*Carome said he thought that nonprofit advocacy groups and other organizations like Public Citizen typically asked reporters not to share embargoed documents and studies with sources.* “I hadn’t perceived that others weren’t doing it this way,” he said. “I perhaps assumed they were.” And, he mused, “it probably would have been fine” for reporters to have been able to share the letter.

I of course agreed, and I hope that Public Citizen considers making that the policy next time. As I told Carome, this wasn’t the worst problem either of us would have to think about that day, and I didn’t have any sense that Public Citizen was trying to turn reporters into stenographers the way the FDA was. There are much bigger fish to fry when it comes to embargoes.

But I do get nervous when those who embargo — and make no mistake, they are temporarily restricting the flow of information, regardless of intent — start to take advantage of how willing journalists are to trade complete freedom for access. Whether anyone means for it to or not, that erodes journalistic independence.

Update, 1845 UTC, 7/26/18: Line surrounded by asterisks edited to better reflect that Carome was drawing a distinction between journals, which would allow studies to be shared, and advocacy groups that release letters such as this.

Here’s a story from MedPage Today on the letter, and another from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

July 25, 2018 at 7:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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