Monday, May 18, 2009

embargoes: scrambled or fried?

Last week, a piece of science news about a 47-million-year-old fossil primate, planned for release at a big news conference in New York, was first disclosed in stories in the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Mail, with the cooperation of the lead scientist--who then refused, along with his team, to speak to any other reporters once the story was broken. Science magazine's very good account has been updated to note that the WSJ reporter says the scientist...
gave me the information freely, and it was only at the very end of our conversation that he suddenly said his comments were "embargoed" until Tuesday." Standard practice in journalism is that a conversation is off-the-record only if both the reporter and the interviewee agree on that before it begins.
While there are two policies in play in this example, that report is correct: It's impossible to deem somthing "off the record" after you've said it, only before. (Here's a good basic explanation of "off the record" from the National Association of Science Writers.) An embargo is a pre-arranged agreement between the news-issuing organization and reporters, in which extra advance time is allowed to research and report on stories, with a fixed time and date for release, so that all news media outlets are on a level playing field--in other words, the material's off-the-record long enough to allow reporting, but no news organization can scoop the others during that time period. In both cases, however, those policies are agreed to in advance--and if you're the source, you should be reiterating them before every embargoed interview, not after it ends.

I've set hundreds of embargoes in my time communicating science, and it's never easy or comfortable. Ancient fossil stories are particularly like catnip to public audiences and the news media, but it still should have been possible to release this story open to all with no restrictions, or with all restrictions known and stated up front to all reporters. It's not clear precisely what went wrong in this exchange, but I hope these reports don't reflect a pattern I've seen when scientists are engaged in high-stakes announcements: Get the ground rules scrambled, break the story by sharing it out of bounds, blame the reporter, withhold further information to make it clear it wasn't your fault. What should scientists (and other sources) do instead?

  • Accept that you don't set the rules in this kitchen, and if you can't stand the heat... Journalists aren't accountable to your rules, but their own--and in this case, the rules have to be clearly negotiated and stated ahead of time.
  • Check with the chef: Ideally, you're learning these rules well ahead of any announcement, but even right before one, be sure you understand what you can say and when. Your public information officer or communicator can explain the tradeoffs, and how to handle them.
  • Don't blame the diners for mistakes in what you're serving up. You may think this helps your image, but in fact, it belies a lack of experience with reporters. (A similar effect happens when you start reacting to your coverage by saying that you've been misquoted consistently. It just doesn't happen that often.) More productive: Seek out training to prepare for how you'll handle these exchanges.
  • You can't unscramble that egg by changing the rules. The best rule of thumb in an interview: What comes out of your mouth is fair game. There aren't any do-overs. If you don't like what you said in one interview--whether the words were poorly chosen or just ill-timed--that's a clue that you need to spend more time working on precisely what you want to say and when, in concert with your communications team, and well in advance of your interviews.

And if that sounds too much like work to you, well, it takes work to make sure reporters--and your institution--are getting what they need in any announcement. Consider what Stephen Jay Gould had to say on the matter: “So many scientists think that once they figure it out, that’s all they have to do...I never saw it that way. Part of the art of any kind of total scholarship is to say it well." The smartest scientists or sources of any kind seek out training and preparation before they start flinging hash; contact me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz for information on media interview skills and media strategies that include training and preparation.

UPDATE: A hat tip to science journalist Carl Zimmer, who looked into what limitations reporters faced in this announcement, which helps complete the picture on this restrictive, go-for-the-attention announcement.

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