KSJ Tracker December 12, 2011

Astronomer discovers a 50+ year-old fact of science journalism

If this one hadn't appeared in The Huffington Post (albeit the UK edition), we probably would have ignored it. But since a fair number of intelligent but young people read THP, they might well think David Whitehouse has disclosed a dirty little secret of science and medical journalism--the embargo. As the primary clientele of this site know, embargoes are agreements between journalists and sources to delay publication of a story until a specified time and date. They've been a fixture of many areas of journalism for generations--not just science and medical news but financial, political, military, police and other areas. They date back at least to the mid-20th century and were often advocated by science journalists because they gave us more time to work on a story (and get it right) than if we each felt driven to rush into print as soon as we got the journal or news release or interviewed a scientist. Often blamed for weakening enterprise journalism, embargoes need not do any such thing. The system can't stop a reporter from chasing a story, writing it and publishing it at any time. Unless the reporter who has agreed to the system gets wind of it because of impending publication. Reporters who cover their beats well are usually way ahead of the publication curve and find nothing embargoed. But, admittedly, the embargo system has made it too easy for former enterprise reporters to wait to be spoon fed by embargoed news releases. Nonetheless, astronomer Whitehouse, whose byline includes his academic title of "Dr," ledes his piece with this sentence: "I will let you in on a secret." He goes on to describe the system as some dark conspiracy and labels the goal of time to get the science right as "poppycock and patronizing." He also confuse something known as the Ingelfinger rule (though he doesn't call it that) with the embargo system. (Ingelfinger, a long-ago editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, ruled that if a piece of research had been covered in the lay press, he would not publish it in his journal.) I am not a huge fan of the embargo system, but I think it has its place. Journalists throughout the newsroom work by it every day, and I believe in the poppycock that reporters who have more time usually turn out stories that serve readers, listeners and viewers better.

-Boyce Rensberger



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