The deal was this: NPR, along with a select group of media outlets, would get a briefing about an upcoming announcement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration a day before anyone else. But in exchange for the scoop, NPR would have to abandon its reportorial independence. The FDA would dictate whom NPR’s reporter could and couldn’t interview.
“My editors are uncomfortable with the condition that we cannot seek reaction,” NPR reporter Rob Stein wrote back to the government officials offering the deal. Stein asked for a little bit of leeway to do some independent reporting but was turned down flat. Take the deal or leave it.
NPR took the deal. “I’ll be at the briefing,” Stein wrote.
Later that day in April 2014, Stein—along with reporters from more than a dozen other top-tier media organizations, including CBS, NBC, CNN, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times—showed up at a federal building to get his reward. Every single journalist present had agreed not to ask any questions of sources not approved by the government until given the go-ahead.
“I think embargoes that attempt to control sourcing are dangerous because they limit the role of the reporter whose job it is to do a full look at a subject,” says New York Times former public editor Margaret Sullivan. “It’s really inappropriate for a source to be telling a journalist whom he or she can and can’t talk to.” Ivan Oransky, distinguished writer in residence at New York University’s Journalism Institute and founder of the Embargo Watch weblog, agrees: “I think it’s deeply wrong.”
This kind of deal offered by the FDA—known as a close-hold embargo—is an increasingly important tool used by scientific and government agencies to control the behavior of the science press. Or so it seems. It is impossible to tell for sure because it is happening almost entirely behind the scenes. We only know about the FDA deal because of a wayward sentence inserted by an editor at the New York Times. But for that breach of secrecy, nobody outside the small clique of government officials and trusted reporters would have known that the journalists covering the agency had given up their right to do independent reporting.
Documents obtained by Scientific American through Freedom of Information Act requests now paint a disturbing picture of the tactics that are used to control the science press. For example, the FDA assures the public that it is committed to transparency, but the documents show that, privately, the agency denies many reporters access—including ones from major outlets such as Fox News—and even deceives them with half-truths to handicap them in their pursuit of a story. At the same time, the FDA cultivates a coterie of journalists whom it keeps in line with threats. And the agency has made it a practice to demand total control over whom reporters can and can’t talk to until after the news has broken, deaf to protests by journalistic associations and media ethicists and in violation of its own written policies.
By using close-hold embargoes and other methods, the FDA, like other sources of scientific information, are gaining control of journalists who are supposed to keep an eye on those institutions. The watchdogs are being turned into lapdogs. “Journalists have ceded the power to the scientific establishment,” says Vincent Kiernan, a science journalist and dean at George Mason University. “I think it’s interesting and somewhat inexplicable, knowing journalists in general as being people who don’t like ceding power.”
The press corps is primed for manipulation by a convention that goes back decades: the embargo. The embargo is a back-room deal between journalists and the people they cover—their sources. A source grants the journalist access on condition that he or she cannot publish before an agreed-on date and time.
A surprisingly large proportion of science and health stories are the product of embargoes. Most of the major science journals offer reporters advance copies of upcoming articles—and the contact information of the authors—in return for agreeing not to run with the story until the embargo expires. These embargoes set the weekly rhythm of science coverage: On Monday afternoon, you may see a bunch of stories about the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA published almost simultaneously. Tuesday, it’s the Journal of the American Medical Association. On Wednesday, it’s Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine. Science stories appear on Thursday. Other institutions have also adopted the embargo system. Federal institutions, especially the ones science and health journalists report on, have as well. Embargoes are the reason that stories about the National Laboratories, the National Institutes of Health and other organizations often tend to break at the precisely same time.
Embargoes were first embraced by science reporters in the 1920s, in part because they take the pressure off. After all, when everybody agrees to publish their stories simultaneously, a reporter can spend extra time researching and writing a story without fear of being scooped. “[Embargoes] were created at the behest of journalists,” says Kiernan, who has written a book, Embargoed Science, about scientific embargoes. “Scientists had to be convinced to go along.” But scientific institutions soon realized that embargoes could be used to manipulate the timing and, to a lesser extent, the nature of press coverage. The result is a system whereby scientific institutions increasingly control the press corps. “They’ve gotten the upper hand in this relationship, and journalists have never taken it back,” Kiernan says.
The embargo system is such an established institution in science journalism that few reporters complain or even think about its darker implications, at least until they themselves feel slighted. This January the California Institute of Technology was sitting on a great story: researchers there had evidence of a new giant planet—Planet Nine—in the outer reaches of our solar system. The Caltech press office decided to give only a dozen reporters, including Scientific American‘s Michael Lemonick, early access to the scientists and their study. When the news broke, the rest of the scientific journalism community was left scrambling. “Apart from the chosen 12, those working to news deadlines were denied the opportunity to speak to the researchers, obtain independent viewpoints or have time to properly digest the published research paper,” complained BBC reporter Pallab Ghosh about Caltech’s “inappropriate” favoritism in an open letter to the World Federation of Science Journalists.
When asked about why Caltech chose to release the news only to a select group of reporters, Farnaz Khadem, Caltech’s head of communications, stated that she is committed to being “fair and transparent” about how and when Caltech shares news with journalists. She then refused to talk about the Planet Nine incident or embargoes or press strategy, and she would not grant access to anyone at Caltech who might talk about such matters. As a consequence, it is hard to know for certain why Caltech decided to share the news with only a select group of reporters. But it is not hard to guess why journalists such as Ghosh were excluded. “It wasn’t that they were not good enough or not liked enough,” Kiernan speculates. “There was a real effort here to control things, making sure that the elite of the elite covered this story and covered it in a certain way, which would then shape the coverage of all other journalists. It’s very clearly a control effort.”
Caltech is not the only institution that steers coverage by briefing a very small subset of reporters. (As I was writing this piece, I received a note from a U.S. Air Force press officer offering a sneak preview of video footage being offered to “a select number of digital publications.”) For years the FDA has been cultivating a small group of journalists who are entrusted with advance notice of certain events while others are left out in the cold. But it was not the game of favorites that ignited a minor firestorm in the journalism community in January 2011—it was the introduction of the close-hold embargo.
Like a regular embargo, a close-hold embargo allows early access to information provided that attendees not publish before a set date and time. In this case, it was a sneak peek at rules about to be published regarding medical devices. But there was an additional condition: reporters were expressly forbidden from seeking outside comment. Journalists would have to give up any semblance of being able to do independent reporting on the matter before the embargo expired.
Even reporters who had been dealing with the FDA for years were incredulous. When one asked the agency’s press office if it really was forbidding communications with outside sources, Karen Riley, an official at the FDA, erased all doubt. “It goes without saying that the embargo means YOU CANNOT call around and get comment ahead of the 1 P.M. embargo,” she said in an e-mail.
“Actually it does need some saying, since this is a new version of a journalistic embargo,” wrote Oransky in his Embargo Watch blog. Without the ability to contact independent sources, he continued, “journalists become stenographers.” Kiernan echoes the sentiment: “[When] you can’t verify the information, you can’t get comment on the information. You have to just keep it among this group of people that I told you about, and you can’t use it elsewhere. In that situation, the journalist is allowing his or her reporting hands to be tied in a way that they’re not going to be anything, ultimately, other than a stenographer.”