In The Field

Embargoes broken?

Today a panel of speakers at the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) turned its attention to the embargo system. Are embargoes good for science journalists – and science – or not?

For the uninitiated, journals such as Nature and Science routinely give information to journalists about forthcoming academic publications before they are released to the wider world. The information is ‘under embargo’ until a set publication time – at which point newspapers, TV, newswires and the like are free to release their stories. Increasingly, academic institutions do the same sort of deals with the media, too.

The advantage for journalists is that it gives them more time to work on the story, talk to the researchers involved, and get the science right, argued panellist Geoff Watts, a BBC Radio 4 broadcaster.

It also reduces the chances that a poor science hack will miss a good story that their competitors cover, thus incurring the wrath of their news editor.

And it’s great for the journals too. By marshalling the coverage of their science papers, big journals can virtually guarantee that their brand is splashed all over the newspapers and the web at the same time every week. They’re happy; the journalists have an easier life, and arguably produce better stories; and the scientists involved can point to the coverage in their next grant application as evidence of the importance of and public interest in their work. Everyone’s a winner, right?

Wrong, says Vincent Kiernan, associate dean at Georgetown University, journalist, and journalism scholar.

Embargoes have become an addiction for journalists, he said, a set of “velvet handcuffs” that simply eats up time and resources that could be better spent digging up scoops. Not only does it turn journalists into propagandists for scientists and academic journals, it also reduces science to an artificial series of ‘eureka’ moments.

Indeed, there’s no evidence that stories written under embargo are any better than those which are not, he added. And in a time when media companies are struggling, the ones that will survive are those which provide unique content – not those who follow the pack and write the same stories about science that everyone else is writing.

He’s even written a book on the subject – Embargoed Science – and his advice to journalists is: “It’s time to walk away from the embargo. Just walk away.”

So what does Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet – which operates a very strict embargo policy – think? “I’m Richard,” he shouts, “I’m 47 and I’ve been addicted to embargoes for 14 years.”

In a remarkable diatribe, delivered at top volume and with tongue only slightly in cheek, Horton explained that embargoes were all “about power and control – my power to control you, turning journalists into agents of propaganda.”

Eyes abalaze, he continued, almost mocking the open-mouthed hacks in the audience: “Look at this story, don’t you want it? Your rival wants it!” he cried. “But you’ve sold your soul to publicity masquerading as science.”

Ultimately, getting rid of the embargo system would improve the quality of science journalism, he concluded, because it would force editors to employ reporters who actually knew what they were talking about, rather than simply being able to read and regurgitate a weekly press release at leisure.

So, an audience member asked him, if you think embargoes are so damaging to decent journalism, why doesn’t The Lancet get rid of them: “Are you afraid of the journalists?”

“No, I’m afraid of Tony [Kirby, The Lancet’s chief Rottweiler – er, press officer – and a former colleague of mine],” Horton replied. Despite the fact that the embargo system repels Horton, the reality is that his colleagues tell him it’s good for business, he explained.

But Horton has a plan. To test the hypothesis that embargoed journal papers get more, and better-quality, coverage in the popular press, he suggested that all the papers published by The Lancet over, say, a month or two, could be divided into two randomized groups. One set would be press released under embargo; the other merely published by the journal at the usual time.

The audience giggled uncertainly. But talking to Horton after the event, I challenged him to follow through with the plan. After all, it could turn into a fascinating experiment. He promised to discuss it with Tony – so let’s see what happens.


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