The news embargo is an ancient press tool that seems, at first glance, not to fit into the modern world of digital media. However, although there are no deadlines on rolling news or social media, a new study reveals that many journalists and public relations professionals will still observe an embargo, and delay publishing a story until an agreed time.
The arguments for doing so haven’t changed very much over the years: embargoes are practical for busy, pressurised journalists, and for a source they can mean their story will be better researched and more accurate.
Although there are few, if any, sanctions against journalists who ignore an embargo, this rarely happens. Peer pressure and an unwritten code of honour means that journalists rarely break embargoes, in case it appears that they have ‘cheated’ to get a story before the competition.
For this research: “News embargoes – under threat, but not extinct. How an ancient press tool survives in the modern world”, I interviewed practising journalists, academics and PR professionals in the UK and Europe in autumn 2014, to find out whether the news embargo had survived the transition into the digital world. The paper, researched while I was a Journalism Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, reports that news embargoes are still widely used, but with variations across disciplines.
Science journalism embargoes are most widely debated
Science journalism is the area where the role of embargoes is most widely debated. The embargo has been a core part of leading science journals since the 1920s. Scientific journal editors defend the use of embargoes because embargoes allow journals to control the science agenda, by managing the release of information to the mass media.
But what is seen as really problematic by science journalists is the so-called Ingelfinger rule: This dictates that scientists who aim for publication in one of the elite journals must not release their findings anywhere else beforehand. In practice, scientists, especially in the US, don’t talk to media at all, for fear of accidentally releasing embargoed information.
This has led Ivan Oransky, vice president and global editorial director of MedPage Today, to describe the Ingelfinger rule as a “stranglehold” that keeps journalists from reporting on science as it actually happens. Oransky has set up a blog, Embargo Watch, where he keeps track of broken embargoes in science journalism and where journalists comment on or discuss the cases.
Financial journalists are often ‘locked-in’ before the release of embargoed data
Embargoes are still very important in the financial world. Institutions that release financial data are increasingly paranoid in case information is leaked too early. In the US, financial journalists are often ‘locked-in’ to a room, where they are allowed to read embargoed data before it is released, to give them time to understand it properly.
Recently security has grown even tighter around these lock-ins. Now the US Department of Labor doesn’t allow journalists to bring any items – not even a donut – into a lock-up room for fear of somehow compromising the rules.
Financial PR companies are also very careful. In some European countries listed companies used to provide journalists with market-sensitive information before it was put out to the shareholders. But since the outbreak of the financial crisis, market authorities observe the release policies much more closely, so this practice has largely ended. Nobody wants to risk a story being leaked.
For PR professionals, managing of the message is still key. My research showed that managing the release of news has become more complicated due to the fragmentation of news consumption. Sources still want to sell their stories in advance, but at the same time journalists are less enthusiastic about planning stories a week in advance. It is therefore likely that news embargoes on softer topics in business journalism could become extinct in the near future.
Embargoes are sometimes broken, but there are few sanctions
Embargoes are sometimes broken, but this is usually due to human error. Surprisingly, neither journalists, nor sources, bother very much about broken embargoes. Sanctions are rarely implemented. Journalists do not like cheating: Once they have promised to abide by an embargo agreement they will do so, even though they could easily break it on the internet, and despite the fact that sources seem to benefit more from the use of embargoes than journalists.
Pic credit: Embargo Watch