News You Can't Use  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   September 2002

News You Can't Use   

Journalists are questioning the longstanding practice of embargoing news.

By Kathryn S. Wenner
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at the Washington Post.     


News embargoes. The very idea of them seems to go against the journalistic grain, yet reporters have lived with them for years, mostly in routine fashion.

A lot of science and medical journalists--working in a field in which embargoes are common--appreciate having official release dates for news, for the same reasons that officials use them: They level the playing field between news organizations of varying sizes and improve stories because reporters have more time to digest and flesh out complex topics. Newspapers sign embargo agreements with medical and scientific journals all the time.

But what would happen if a reporter published a story before the embargo was up, claiming to have gotten the information independently--or even before the embargo was put in place? And what if that information involved news that could affect people's health? Or, what if Wall Street analysts used embargoed medical information to advise selected clients, the same information that journalists were barred from reporting?

Both of these scenarios happened recently and raise questions about whether the system should be more flexible--or be done away with altogether.

In early July--just hours before a 9:30 a.m. news briefing and embargo deadline--the Detroit Free Press ran a story of enormous national interest on the sudden stoppage of a long-term study of hormone replacement therapy involving more than 16,000 women. The Journal of the American Medical Association, which was publishing the study and agreed to the embargo time at the request of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, responded by cutting off relations with the paper and the reporter who wrote the story until she apologizes.

Free Press medical writer Patricia Anstett, a journalist with three decades of experience, including 13 years on the medical beat, says she nailed the story down before receiving JAMA's press release. "I don't consider this breaking an embargo," she says. "It was a highly unusual set of circumstances, on a story I consider to be the single biggest women's health issue in a decade. You put all that together [and] we felt compelled to publish when we did."

"We got wind May 31 that the study was in trouble," says Free Press Assistant Features Editor Steve Grimmer. "We got two other sources that corroborated everything.... We were able to find out about documents" that said the study was going to be halted.

The doctor who Anstett says gave her the heads up emphatically denies having done so. The editor of JAMA, Catherine DeAngelis, says she has "written evidence" that Anstett used embargoed information to get her story.

A few hours before the paper sent the story over the Knight Ridder wire (it had already moved a budget line), DeAngelis and doctors directing the study called Anstett and her editors, urging them not to run it, in part out of respect for the volunteers in the study who were to receive letters on the eve of the embargo deadline, telling them to stop taking the hormones.

"We respect an embargo if that's where we're getting the information," says Dale Parry, the Free Press' deputy managing editor for features and technology. "But we can't let someone outside the newsroom decide how we handle independent reporting. At some point it stops being an embargo and starts to be a gag rule."

Nick Tate, science and medicine editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, saw the budget line and had a story ready to go after the Free Press jumped the gun. "There's a gray area here," he says. "If local researchers had called us and said, 'Hey, we're being called to Washington for a study that had been halted in May,' it definitely would have piqued our interest. We would have reported the story. Whether we would have run a story in advance of the embargo is hard for me to say."

Another journalist questions the Free Press' timing. "If she had published her story two weeks before the press conference...I would've been singing her praises as a great investigative journalist," says Wall Street Journal reporter Scott Hensley, who was involved in his paper's coverage of the study. But, he wonders, that close to the embargo deadline, "on something like this, wouldn't you want to wait and get the authoritative data package, including interviews," to make sure readers have the most complete information?

"It was probably not a great thing to have embargoed," says Scott Allen, the Boston Globe's health and science editor. "There were so many people who knew," he says, it was easy to do your own reporting or decide the story was too important to wait. "It's the kind of [situation] that undermines the entire system."

The system is also being undermined by the potential for insider trading on Wall Street. "The wide number of people with preferential access to information raises the possibility of trading for personal gain whenever there's a major study with clear implications for a company's shares," the Wall Street Journal noted in a July 25 article by Hensley and two other reporters. In fact, the Chicago Board Options Exchange is reviewing "unusual trading" on shares of Wyeth, maker of the drug used in the hormone study.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology has come under fire for contributing to the problem. ASCO, an organization of cancer doctors, releases abstracts of study results for presentation at its annual meeting weeks in advance, as a courtesy to its 19,000 members. Because the study results could affect pharmaceutical and biotech stocks, in the last few years Wall Street insiders have gotten ahold of the abstracts. Under ASCO's embargo rule, journalists can't report on the abstracts even if they get the information from a third party, so the public is left out.

Scott Gottlieb, a physician and fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and a former editorial staffer at JAMA, is an outspoken critic of medical society embargoes. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed last year Gottlieb described "the ASCO effect" on stocks--they begin rising more than two weeks prior to the annual meeting--and he criticized ASCO's "strict embargoes and gag clauses that silence researchers and journalists."

ASCO Executive Vice President and CEO Charles M. Balch says the policy protects the public from hearing preliminary research conclusions that may be contradicted by other studies or otherwise not put in proper context. "If it's reported incorrectly, it's hard to take that back," Balch says.

Before this year's meeting, ASCO added an online confidentiality agreement that viewers had to click through to get to the abstracts. It didn't do the job. Balch says the organization continues to search for a solution.

Gottlieb says he thinks the embargo system can't last. "You can always get these stories from independent sources," he says. Plus, he adds, doing away with embargoes would force science and medical reporters to be more enterprising.

A former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, Jerome P. Kassirer, says he has a more nuanced view of embargoes since leaving the journal. "I do think [an embargo] removes some of the gumption of science writers to go after stories that are more detailed and more in depth and more in context. It's too easy to report on the latest study, rather than going into a single subject in detail."

But a staunch defender says the system is here to stay because it works for everybody. "If we were to do away with the embargo," says DeAngelis, "about 1,000 reporters would be screaming their heads off."

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