Let’s take a short break from our usual adventures to take a quick look at what happens when you “break the rules”:
Certainly you’ve noticed that all the major news outlets seem to highlight the same health story at the same time. No, you aren’t crazy – this happens because of a News Embargo.
Here is how it works: A medical journal – lets call it the Journal of Smelly Feet (JSF) – has concluded a major study that shows that socks that are not regularly washed smell 37% worse than the average sock. So the JSF releases this study and its results to the press on a Wednesday afternoon – with the stipulation that this must not be broadcast or appear in print until 8:00 AM Eastern time Monday.
This gives interested journalists (and everyone is interested, the study is a major work) more time to read the research, gather comments from scientists involved in sock care, and write their stories. Monday at 8:00 AM, the embargo is lifted and everyone is free to publicize the story.
Despite this silly example, the embargo does serve a purpose: It allows science and medical reports to become full-fledged “News Events” rather than a few pages in an obscure journal that only a few people will read.
Everything usually works on the honor system, but what happens if someone breaks the embargo? Grabs the bull by the horns and runs with it?
Well, if the offended organization is the American Heart Association… the hammer falls!
The BIG PRESS RELEASE (and it was pretty big, a new study that found that both a stent and a surgical procedure can prevent a stroke) was embargoed until 8:30 AM; but someone at Reuters pressed the button an hour and 43 minutes too early and the story appeared on their website.
It wasn’t long before the jury delivered a guilty verdict and the judge spoke:
As a result of this embargo break, all Reuters reporters will be eliminated from our media distribution list, they will no longer have access to our embargoed newsroom where they can have access to our embargoed journal articles and we will not provide any interviews to any Reuters reporters for a period of 6 months. These sanctions will apply to the reporter who broke the embargo for a period of one year.
Wow! Those AHA folks don’t play.
So, this begs the question – what is Reuters going to do? Well in the “good old days” they could put their science reporters on the street, attending conferences, interviewing experts in the field and developing their own stories. In fact, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) “disciplined” a reporter who broke an embargo. The reporter contends that she did not break the embargo, she got a lead from a source and worked it into a story. Her “reward” for her hard work was a “Sucks to be you!” note from JAMA.
The problem is reality – with news organizations experiencing a decline in readership and ad sales, staffs have been cut. Most of those science reporters are gone; the few that are left are usually stuck behind their keyboards, writing whatever material they gather through press releases, email, and the fax machine.
So there is not as much research, not as much legwork, and the overall quality of medical and science reporting declines.