Worth of embargoes subject to debate

Experts differ on whether or not the classic tactic of embargoes has a place in today's new-media world

The 24/7 news cycle has changed the game dramatically for journalists covering competitive industries. With the growing population of bloggers, competition does not just come from print and online publications. Speedier turnarounds and new rules of engagement regarding information make it a lot tougher to break news before competitors.

But while the game has changed, there are certain rules of the game that remain. One of those rules is the embargo. The practice of keeping information under wraps until a specified time recently got some national attention when The New York Times said it accidentally broke an embargoed study about measles from the World Health Organization (WHO). The paper apologized for its mistake, but that didn't matter to the WHO, which issued an e-mail announcement to the rest of the press corps that there would be a two-week suspension of all Times reporters from its media distribution list.

Had the Times broken a WHO embargo a month or two earlier, there likely would have been no such punishment. But, at the time of the publication's slip-up, the WHO had been doing an extensive internal review of its communications work, which involved developing an embargo policy.

"We [didn't] have one and have not historically enforced our embargoes," says Emma Ross, news team leader at the WHO. "In the absence of having a policy, this was the first situation we came up against [after the policy was created]. The Times was not targeted in any way. It just came up at the time we were in the process of doing this. We decided to take a strong line on this, which is also why we wrote and notified all reporters that this is a new step for us and they need to know there will be action taken."

Ross declined to share details about the incident, and the Times did not return calls before press time. But the situation raises questions as to whether or not embargoes are necessary - or even possible - to maintain in today's news environment.

Bob Steele, senior ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute, admits he is not a fan of embargoes, but says if they are going to be used, it must be for very specific types of information. "And the journalist should be very cautious in agreeing to an embargo request," he says, "[because] when we as journalists know something, the decision to withhold it carries potential ethical and competitive concerns."

Steele believes the concept of embargoes is too often misused by organizations looking to control and "manipulate" the timing of the release of information to serve its own purposes.

"It might be to maximize publicity in terms of timing, it might be to prevent public input prior to a formal announcement," he adds. "The latter is sometimes an issue when a company announces a major expansion that may draw public opposition based on environmental, safety, and health issues."

Bill Zucker, MD and Midwest market leader for Burson-Marsteller, says he uses embargoes and believes they are definitely still relevant. "Maybe more so than ever given the 24/7 news cycle," he says.

Like Steele, he thinks they have greater weight in the healthcare and science industries. "You can make an argument that anything ending in the production of a lengthy report could be justification to use an embargo," he says.

Zucker uses embargoes, but only when the situation meets certain criteria. "When information is released on a regular basis, like weekly statistical updates, or if it's a complicated situation and the media needs time to do extensive reporting," he says. "And we'll use an embargo if a client wants to break a story with a particular media outlet."

Steele says embargoes should be an odd occurrence. "There are still rare occasions when embargoes are appropriate," he says. "But they should be the exception by far rather than any kind of commonplace occurrence."

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