Monday, 30 July 2007

Embargoes, helping or hindering good science journalism?

There has been much discussion in various fora about David Whitehouse's provocative tirade against the embargo system. Many of the reactions defending the embargo system I agree with, but there were a couple of points I wanted to add to what's already been said.

Firstly I would like to point out that the discussion about whether embargoes protect or prevent good science journalism slightly misses the point about embargoes - that they are the property of science press officers. Journalists can engage in all the discussion they like about the embargo system, but the truth is that it is likely to continue because embargoes are one way that science press officers can have some control over the stories we give to the media. If we want the story to be seen or heard by policy makers we can slap on a midnight embargo to make sure MPs wake up to it on BBC Radio 4's Today programme and in the morning papers. If it's a story that we would prefer to reach the general public, we can embargo it to get on the main BBC and ITN TV news. The embargo is something that press officers use to help us do our jobs – to get the best possible coverage for our institutions' work.

And let's face it guys, the embargo is about the only thing we do have control over. Even with the best media management in the business we have no control over what journalists do with our stories. There was a salutary reminder of this at the Science Media Centre (SMC) this week. Having successfully persuaded the Home Office to get on the front foot by issuing their annual animal research statistics at an SMC media briefing (rather than the old policy of sticking the data on their website and waiting for the anti-animal-research groups to give the story to their favourite journalists), we woke up with horror to see that half the press led with Ed Balls' (Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families) father attacking the rise in animal research. Not that I was counting or anything, but our mates at The Guardian gave the previously unheard-of Prof Balls the headline, lead paragraph and six paragraphs to attack the rise in animal research compared with only three for the contents of the briefing itself. But hey, that happens all the time, and not just in science – read any spin-doctor's diary.

Of course that doesn't mean that we should abuse the embargo system and I accept that there has to be a good reason to embargo a story as well as some rationale for the timing. When the SMC embargoed a media briefing on clinical trials after the Parexel disaster for the Sunday papers, we were rightly ridiculed by the dailies for slapping an artificial embargo on an ongoing public health story. But in most other cases the objections from journalists tend to relate to whether or not the embargo time suits them. I love the Today programme dearly but when producers occasionally do that "do you know who we are" thing I now take a perverse pleasure in telling them that I do indeed know who they are but that this time we're trying to reach 8 year olds so the embargo is geared around Newsround! As I have said before in this blog, no matter how much we go out drinking with journalists, there will come a time where the fact that they are journalists and we are press officers will put us at loggerheads – and in my experience that tension almost always comes to light over embargoes.

My only other reaction to David Whitehouse's polemic is to ridicule the notion that the embargo system is somehow preventing hoards of intrepid investigative science journalists from digging out original stories. Quite frankly I find that ludicrous. Science stories do not only appear in embargoed journals or press briefings. There are beautiful science stories blooming in every scientific institution in the country just waiting for some science reporter to pluck. After spending a day with scientists at IGER (the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research) in Aberystwyth two years ago, I told at least 10 journalists that they should pay a visit because there were some great stories to be found. Not one took me up on the idea, but when I persuaded an IGER scientist to come to London to sit on our panel on "farming and climate change" last week, every journalist went crazy over the wonderful story of modifying grass to reduce the methane being belched into the atmosphere by cows. It wasn't the embargo system that had prevented journalists getting this story, it was the long slow train line to Aberystwyth. And if embargoes do thwart journalists from getting their own science stories, how come so many of our science journalists do just that? How come Mark Henderson has broken so many of the cutting edge fertility stories that have graced the front pages of The Times? How come Rachael Buchanan and Fergus Walsh have got so many exclusives on the BBC 10 O'clock news? Did they break any embargoes? No, they pursued stories and kept in touch with scientists.

It is kind of Whitehouse to argue that the embargo system discriminates against Sunday papers, but the best Sunday journalists are not complaining. Robin McKie, science editor of the Observer, has been taking pot-luck on finding a story at the institutions he visits almost every Tuesday and Wednesday. On trips organised by press officers like Sheila Anderson at NERC (Natural Environment Research Council), he meets scientists, takes time to discuss their research and almost always finds his story for that Sunday's paper. Far from whinging about being cruelly denied stories from the journals, McKie tells me he feels liberated from the pressures that his colleagues on the dailies face and says it's a privilege to have the time and space to meet amazing scientists and dig out stories that no one else has. Likewise his colleague on the health side, Jo Revill, has won more awards for her journalism that we've had hot dinners – and in five years I've never heard her complain about being excluded from the embargo system.

So I'm afraid I find little to agree with in Whitehouse's article and indeed his starting point – that the embargo system produces shoddy journalism –simply does not ring true.

I want to give the last word to my friend Geoff Watts, a long serving BBC health and science reporter, whose witty reaction to David Whitehouse's article neatly sums the majority view; that embargoing journal stories almost certainly improves the quality of science reporting and we remove it at our peril:

"What a splendid idea! Drop all the barriers, get shot of this fuddy-duddy idea about having five minutes thought before we burst into speech and print. Then science too can reap all the so-evident benefits of more general 24 hour news: such as raising the quotient of speculation to established fact; and such as getting the first available "expert" to comment rather than the best one."

2 comments:

David said...

You're absolutely right. The suggestion that the embargoe system is the cause of all (or in fact any) science reporting evils relies on the reader not knowing anything about it.

People doing Science PR, such as yourself, are doing their best to pervert the news market so that science is reported accurately! The suggestion that the noble purpose of the science journalist is thwarted by the evil PR person is bizarre. Every science PR person I have ever come across would fall over themselves to facilitiate science journalists writing the real stories.

Embargoes are, as you say, one of the few bullets in the PR gun, in the hands of people who are trying to enable high quality reporting not prevent it.

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