Embargoes are “strange beasts”, noted ITN’s health and science editor Lawrence McGinty at the annual general meeting of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) in London earlier this week. Few branches of journalism are so familiar with, or shackled by, embargoes as science journalism. Every self-respecting journal appears to implement them, and most science journalists adhere to them.
Most, but not all. Or so it seemed when the British tabloid The Sun splashed “Life on Mars. NASA’s historic discovery of methane on the red planet” on their frontpage on Thursday 15 January. Much to the dissatisfaction of US-based science and technology news service Eurekalert, that had distributed the story to journalists under embargo. In one swift swoop across their keyboards Paul Sutherland, author of the challenged Sun article, was banned from receiving embargoed stories from Eurekalert.
Sutherland hadn’t broken the embargo, though. On his own website he writes that his “story was based entirely on good, old-fashioned, investigative journalism.” And that touches on one of the disadvantages of embargoes. Embargoes encourage lazy journalism. Whereas embargoes can give journalists the time to really investigate a story, all too often they actually take away the stimulus and the need to do “good, old-fashioned, investigative journalism.” Lucky for Sutherland the ABSW takes good care of its members and after deliberations between ABSW and Eurekalert the latter accepted that no embargoes were broken and Sutherland’s privileges have been restored.
But does that mean that Sutherland’s old-fashioned legwork resulted in a better story? Did he beat all those lazy journalists? Unfortunately, no. Sutherland got the story wrong. NASA never claimed, nor could they, that the methane on Mars is of biological origin. “Right now, we do not have enough information to tell whether biology or geology — or both — is producing the methane on Mars,” the embargoed press release states. Nor was the finding historic, because methane on Mars was already discovered in 2004.
This leaves the question wide open whether embargoes actually help science journalists make better stories or whether they are only tools of power in the hands of the producers of embargoed material. Ted Nield, chairman of the ABSW, is forming a committee of journalists “to review the guidelines that apply to material released in advance to the media – focusing specifically on science reporting,” the Press Gazette reports.
Ted Nield told me in an e-mail that the committee is still in formation and it will “undoubtedly include Lawrence McGinty and possibly Natasha Loder (The Economist).” Hopefully it will also include members of the embargo producing entities. I hope and expect that both parties will also have an open discussion about what purpose embargoes actually serve?
According to the Press Gazette “a draft report of the committee’s findings will be discussed at this summer’s World Conference of Science Journalists, to be held in London at the end of June.”
What is the score so far in this embargo fracas? In the spirit of the host country of the World Conference of Science Journalists: NASA 30, science journalism 15. And Eurekalert? A tough love.