Let's break the embargo

In an e-savvy world, an anachronistic gentlemen's agreement should not be limiting science reporting, write Claire Bithell and Simon Levey

March 20, 2008

When you open a newspaper, do you ever wonder why a story is appearing at that time?

It goes without saying that many stories hit the news the instant they happen: motorway pile-ups, natural disasters and politicians' speeches. But what about big reports, yearly statistics and surveys? There may be no external factors determining when these are issued to the media, so timing is everything to the way this kind of news is reported. Although this might be considered "spinning", the reality is that for many stories the time of release is carefully controlled.

Press and public relations officers manage the relationship between an organisation and the media. They plan the best time to release a story to achieve the desired effect, and they enforce it using the most powerful weapon in their armoury - the "embargo". This is a gentlemen's agreement between the press officer and the media, whereby journalists get to know about a story but can't report it publicly until the embargo is lifted at an agreed time.

Breaking an embargo can cause a stir. While the reporter and the paper gain a competitive edge over rivals, sanctions are harsh. Journalists can be ostracised by peers and struck off the press officers' contact lists; the price they pay can mean their newspaper misses out on all the important stories from a journal or institution for months.

By the time we hear about scientific research in the media, the "eureka moment" is well in the past. Reports and surveys take weeks to compile and months to analyse. A successful experiment is repeated to ensure it wasn't a fluke, lengthy reports are written stating the findings, the scientist composes an article for submission to a journal, which is then moderated by colleagues through the peer review process. Only then, if the data prove robust enough and the findings interesting enough, will the journal decide whether to publish the paper. Even in the interim, between the article being accepted and its publication, scientists are strongly discouraged from going public about their work; articles are made available "under embargo" only shortly before publication, hopefully eliminating the risk of stories leaking out early.

But who really benefits from this agreement? Embargoes supposedly make a science reporter's life easier; giving time to read the information, talk to the research authors, get reaction and write a considered article. Reporters can plan their schedule and flag up big stories to news editors who can allocate space (royal deaths and freak natural disasters permitting).

Academic journals, which are all corporate ventures at heart, also benefit because the appearance of their research in the news coincides with their publication date, guaranteeing them a namecheck. Scientific institutions and conferences benefit because namechecks mean more public exposure, attracting students, researchers and funding.

Weekly news consumers are the main audience for stories from major journals such as Nature, Science, The Lancet and the British Medical Journal, and the timing of their embargo suits the daily reporters' schedules. This leaves journalists at weekly publications and Sunday papers to look on while some of the biggest science stories become old news. By operating outside the system, these reporters can be investigative and intrepid, rather than being tied to the weekly rotation of journal stories or breaking their embargoes. They can work independently, seeking exclusives rather than relying on press officers and churning out the same science stories as every daily newspaper, a practice many argue is strangling science journalism.

Thanks to 24-hour rolling news and the web, the world of science reporting is becoming smaller every day. News from Australia whizzes around the world and becomes the morning's headlines in Britain. By the time the US wakes up, three new stories have broken. The embargo was hitherto the mainstay of a press officer's toolkit, but global time differences seem increasingly unworkable and policing reporting across the globe while you sleep is nigh on impossible. Perhaps the way forward is to encourage more investigative science journalism. Perhaps it is time for press officers to look for new ways to publicise our work, maximise our news coverage and get our stories heard.

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