ANALYSIS: Press Embargoes

Ethical debate builds up as embargoes are neglected - The Detroit Free Press' handling of a recent story raised questions as to whether embargoes should be honored. Anita Chabria weighs the ethical arguments on both sides.

Ethical debate builds up as embargoes are neglected - The Detroit Free Press' handling of a recent story raised questions as to whether embargoes should be honored. Anita Chabria weighs the ethical arguments on both sides.

It was a medical story that sent millions of women straight to their doctors for a dose of reassurance. Last week, researchers for the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute announced that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for post-menopausal women wasn't the panacea many doctors believed, and in fact could have serious adverse health risks - so dire, that a research project that was slated to run until 2005 was cut short. With about 38% of post-menopausal American women currently on HRT, the announcement quickly became one of the top medical stories of the year, popping up on nightly news broadcasts and blanketing the health pages of dailies.

But the timing of the story sparked some controversy of its own. Researchers involved in the study published their findings in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), which sent out an embargoed release announcing the findings a week before the magazine reached subscribers. The embargo was in effect until 9:30am EST on Tuesday, July 9, when the researchers planned to hold a press conference.

However, the Detroit Free Press ran the story early. Despite claims by medical reporter Patricia Anstett that she had independently reported the story prior to receiving the restricted information, JAMA publicly accused her of breaking the embargo, and sanctioned both reporter and paper by kicking the Free Press off its media release list, and refusing to grant Anstett future interviews.

The squabble ignited a fierce debate among journalists and PR practitioners about the ethics of embargoes, and raises tough questions about their use - and abuse - by both media and communications professionals. Are embargoes requests or binding promises? Is there an understood ethical code protecting them? Is it even possible to keep a secret anymore?

"These days, if you use an embargo, I think you're taking a great risk," says Jerry Swerling, coordinator of the PR program at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. "There are certainly a lot of reporters who will still honor them and respect them, but there are a lot who won't.

If you feel you must use an embargo, don't assume that someone has made a promise."

Hundreds - if not thousands - of embargoed releases go out every day, blanketing outlets with unsolicited advance information. And although the embargoed status is clearly displayed on these missives, rarely are journalists asked for their cooperation prior to receiving them. That leaves individual reporters and outlets contending with a unilateral agreement.

Jann Ingmire, media manager for JAMA, confirmed that it sends advance notice of upcoming reports to over 1,500 journalists - but has no written policy on embargoes. Most reporters simply honor the acceptable publish date on the top of the release, she says. "What happened last week is very unusual, contends Ingmire of Anstett's early story.

The ethics of embargoes

While the breach may be unusual, JAMA's system of embargoing isn't. In fact, few PR agencies contact reporters personally before sending out embargoed information. That, say some journalists, is assuming an acquiescence that isn't always in their power to give.

"(Embargoes) are not a particularly ethical arrangement from a media standpoint, argues Gary Hill, head of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists, and an broadcast investigative reporter in the Twin Cities. "People will just kind of feed you the information and slap something on the top of it that says this is embargoed until such and such a time. We didn't ask for the information; they just ship the information, and then they ask us to act in a certain fashion, when our ethics say we should act in a different fashion. Its not necessarily ethical on our part to honor the embargo."

The best journalists will tell you their first loyalty lies with the public. If information is viewed as important for safety or welfare, embargoing can come across as self-serving. And honoring the embargo becomes a greater ethical breach than publishing the information.

"The embargo may be illegitimate if it is merely serving the interests of the organization releasing the information, points out Bob Steele, head of the ethics program at The Poynter Institute. "The ethical issue of embargoes has to do with the importance of the information to the public.

If what's being withheld is of value to the public, then journalists could very well be unethical by failing to serve the citizens to whom they owe primary allegiance."

But non-critical information draws a murkier line, and represents the area where PR and media mingle, making unspoken deals to feed the needs of a 24-7 news cycle. Originally intended to compensate for time zones and allow all news outlets equal access to important announcements, embargoes have transformed into a tool for pumping the most publicity out of an item by making sure all reporters have equal access - reducing chances that the story will be dropped as old news after appearing in only a few outlets. A level playing field translates to more coverage, which benefits both journalists and PR pros. For many in the media, knowing they won't get beaten is worth giving up the chance for a scoop.

"The embargo is certainly not done to alienate reporters, but to facilitate their ability to cover material, says Ingmire. "You may talk to some reporters that don't think too much of embargoes, but this is just making materials available in advance. I think for the kind of information JAMA puts out, the embargoes work because it does provide an equal opportunity for every reporter to get the story out."

Equal opportunity or ethical conundrum, the one thing journalists agree on is that there are no industry standards for handling embargoes. Issues regarding embargoes are rarely taught in journalism school, nor addressed in most newsrooms. Both Steele and Swerling say their programs have no formal training on the issue, though both cover ethics. Hill adds that his group deals with embargoes on an individual basis. "We honor those we've agreed to in advance, and the others are case by case, he explains.

Easily - and frequently - broken

Without consensus, the reality is that embargoes are broken every day.

Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal ran a story on Texas A&M University, which had just successfully created the first cloned cat, dubbed "CC, for "Carbon Copy".

"The Journal had found out about it, and was fixing to break the story," explains Keith Randall, senior communications specialist for Texas A&M.

"But (the Journal) did its job. It did aggressive reporting, and you can't fault it for that."

Apparently, the Journal researched the story on its own. But running the piece when it did forced the science journal Nature to break its embargo, as it planned to publish the study later that month. Instead, Nature posted it on its website early to avoid being scooped.

A month prior to that, Time was caught in an embargo dispute with Apple Computer when the magazine's Canadian website accidentally posted a story on the release of the redesigned iMac. Time had reportedly been given an exclusive on the story in exchange for publishing it in sync with iMac's unveiling at MacWorld - but the site ran the story a day early.

That type of uncertainty makes the embargo a hotly debated issue, with both communications professionals and media having been burned by the inconclusive standards that currently surround them. And it's doubtful any rules will ever be agreed upon. While PR and the media may have close ties, their agendas will always differ, and any agreements between the two will raise concerns about the independence of reporting.

"Investigative reporting and getting the news first are their goals, as opposed to an embargo and the rules applied to it, points out Randall.

"What the answer is to that, I don't know. As long as news is current and there is such competitiveness for it - there is a deadline every minute - I don't think this is a problem that will ever go away."

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