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Embargoes, the NY Times, and the WHO

For the next two weeks, if you want news about the World Health Organization (WHO), you may have to consult sources other than __The New York Times__. According to an Email I just received from the WHO, the organization has suspended the __Times__ from its media distribution list for two weeks after the newspaper broke an embargo on a linkurl:story on measles deaths. ;http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/29/world/africa/29briefs-measles.html?_r=1&oref=slogin (They've dropped sharply, it turns out.) ''

By | November 30, 2007

For the next two weeks, if you want news about the World Health Organization (WHO), you may have to consult sources other than __The New York Times__. According to an Email I just received from the WHO, the organization has suspended the __Times__ from its media distribution list for two weeks after the newspaper broke an embargo on a linkurl:story on measles deaths. ;http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/29/world/africa/29briefs-measles.html?_r=1&oref=slogin (They've dropped sharply, it turns out.) ''WHO communications staff have been asked not to brief any __New York Times__ reporters during this period on any stories that are scheduled to be released through the WHO email distribution list,'' the Email also reported. I'm sure the __Times__ will figure out a way to report on the WHO without the embargoed material. They're a newspaper. It's what they do. And two weeks isn't that long a period of time. What struck me was the public flogging. In recent months, I've received a number of notices from journals saying that an embargo was being lifted immediately -- eg early -- because a given news organization had broken it. Many didn't even say what publication had committed the break. I don't recall any that noted the punishment that would be meted out, and I certainly don't remember any organization sending out a special message whose only purpose was to inform journalists about such a punishment. I Emailed the WHO to find out if they had ever done so before; I'll let you know if they respond. The Email also reminded me that I linkurl:hate embargoes. ;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/53112/ (I'm not the only one: See Vincent Kiernan's linkurl:recent book.) ;http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/97yhb3wm9780252030970.html We of course honor them at __The Scientist__; my hating them doesn't mean we break agreements under which we obtain material early from the WHO and journals. The __Times__ did, and the punishment is probably apt, and seems in line with other punishments groups have meted out. ''Breaches are a violation of this code of honour among journalists and between reporters and their sources,'' said the WHO. But perhaps it's time to revisit whom this ''code of honour'' is serving. If it's not the reading public, it may be time for embargoes to go.
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Comments

December 3, 2007

I agree that embargoes are not worth the paper they are printed on, especially in these times when the internet makes the idea of "reserved" information irrelevant. In my experience running two international news organizations (NPR and CBC), embargoes are occasionally useful (government budgets when breaking the embargo might result in financial benefits) but in almost every other case, embargoes are simply another high-minded way of manipulating the news for the benefit of the source and not for the public. Scientists too frequently insist that journalists are too stupid to understand their work and therefore require a longer period of time to "get" the point of the press release. But with a significant number of science-based Ph.D.s inhabiting newsrooms these days, that notion sounds to me like a bit of self-serving nonsense. My advice to scientists: just put the news out there, make yourselves available and try to speak clearly.\n\n
Avatar of: Paul Basken

Paul Basken

Posts: 1

December 3, 2007

As a reporter, I also don't like embargoes philosophically, but having covered enough medical and science announcements, I see a certain amount of value in giving reporters a day or two to gather the facts, as well as informed reaction, and make some sense of it, before rushing out something that might lead people to stop taking a medicine they should take, or otherwise mislead readers with consequences potentially more dire than merely overhyping the latest three-alarm fire. Hmm... come to think of it, would our newspapers be improved if every article was done this way?
Avatar of: Jim

Jim

Posts: 1

December 4, 2007

"Scientists too frequently insist that journalists are too stupid to understand their work and therefore require a longer period of time to "get" the point of the press release."\n\nThere are good reasons to oppose embargoes, but the claim that Ph.D. reporters can grasp a medical or scientific story in a couple of hours is not one of them. These stories are consistently misrepresented by the media.\n\nAt best they will call the scientist for a walk-through of the scientist's view of the story, plus a counterpoint from some call-an-expert. I rarely see challenges to the research protocol or details about the research that didn't make it into the study that might put it in doubt. And there is rarely an explanation of what the significance of a study is: definitive meta study, initial test-the-water study, or whatever.

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