Time to Kill the Embargo

Adam L. Penenberg
Wired News, 12.23.04

When a hot story breaks, whether it’s a murder trial, a politician’s extramarital affair or secret M&A talks between giant telecom rivals, it’s inevitable that marauding packs of journalists will descend on the scene.

The prize: That one nugget of information that lets one of them scoop the competition.

When you think about it, it’s not unlike the concept of open source, with each reporter contributing a piece of the puzzle. Is it often distasteful? Sure. A waste of resources? Of course. But while you can question the newsworthiness of saturating the cable and broadcast airwaves with incremental advances in, say, the Scott Peterson murder case, or the wisdom of spilling barrels of ink on Martha Stewart, you have to admit that free competition is an effective way to promote news gathering.
One major exception is the press embargo, when information is passed on to reporters with the understanding that they can’t publish anything on it until a prearranged time. It is a common practice in science and medicine, and has been molded into a high art by publications like Nature, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The New England Journal of Medicine and Science. Journalists who cover technology and business also confront embargoes.

In theory, press embargoes give journalists time to report and write accurate articles on complex issues, although there’s no proof they accomplish this. They do, however, have a number of side effects. Journals announcing scientific breakthroughs get an enviable public relations blast when a dozen publications publish articles at the same time. In effect, reporters become accomplices in a highly coordinated marketing campaign. But journalists get something out of the arrangement, too. It levels the playing field, otherwise, the thinking goes, The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times would have every scoop handed to them.

What happens if a publication breaks an embargo? It depends. If it’s inadvertent — because the writer misread the date and time on the release; an editor pushes an article in his queue to press; or a reporter receives an issue of a journal early and didn’t know the story was embargoed — the publication or publicist will merely lift the embargo and life goes on. If it’s more egregious, a journal may publicly shame the perp or the publication in an e-mail to the other journalists on the beat, and blacklist the reporter, which can cause migraines for anyone dependent on them.

But do embargoes serve the public interest?

I’m not alone when I say no. Vincent Kiernan, a senior writer who covers Information Technology for The Chronicle of Higher Education, believes that embargoes not only reduce competition, they foster fake newsworthiness.

“Science works incrementally: two steps forward, one step back,” said Kiernan, who wrote about press embargoes in his doctoral dissertation at the University of Maryland. He contends that there has been entirely too much coverage of new treatments, new therapies and new drugs, which the embargo system promotes. “Lavishing enormous attention on some small steps provides misleading information to the public,” he said.

Kiernan, who emphasized that he does not speak for the Chronicle, believes it is the journals and publicists who gain from the present system. So does Harvey Leifert, public information manager of the American Geophysical Union, or AGU, who rejects embargoes on principle, viewing them as a “game.”

In a recent article, he wrote: “Scientific information does not belong to a journal; it was developed by scientists, usually with grants of public money, and has been reviewed by other independent scientists (an important function facilitated by journal editors). The goal, AGU believes, should be not to manipulate but, rather, to release this information as quickly as feasible.”

I couldn’t agree more. After all, in this internet age of almost instantaneous data exchange, why should anyone have the right to horde potentially life-saving information that could not only affect your health, but also your wealth? Think of that the next time you read about a study in The New England Journal of Medicine that finds a certain drug increases the risk of heart attack, especially if you own stock in the pharmaceutical company that markets it.

And if you are a reporter who plies non-medical or scientific fields like technology or business, why do you even tolerate embargoes? All they do is benefit company publicists, who can orchestrate their clients’ media campaigns by simply coordinating the dissemination of information. That way product releases or company announcements get maximum exposure.

So what can be done? Kiernan says change has to come from the top down, because reporters who follow them are just being rational. They know if they miss out on a new cancer drug story that their editors will hold their feet to the fire.

“The worker bees can’t do it,” he said. “That would be career suicide. It has to come from the editors. If science journalists stood up and, with the support of their publications, said, ‘We’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore,’ the journals would find a way to make it work. Right now, though, journalists are rolling over and letting the journals dictate the terms.”

Some publications have begun to take a stand. Wired News has a policy of not cooperating with embargoes on technology or business stories, but reluctantly goes along when science or medical journals require them. CNET rejects embargoes, too. Unfortunately, The New York Times, Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal continue to toe the line.

Until they refuse to abide by them, however, embargoes will continue to hold sway, to the joy of publicists everywhere. And that’s a shame, because it makes no sense to sit on life-altering news when we have the web at our disposal.

Copyright 2004 Adam L. Penenberg (penenberg.com)