Adam Penenberg: When a hot story breaks, whether it’s a murder trial, a politician’s extramarital affair or secret M&A talks between giant telecom rivals, it’s inevitable that marauding packs of journalists will descend on the scene. The prize: That one nugget of information that lets one of them scoop the competition.
When you think about it, it’s not unlike the concept of open source, with each reporter contributing a piece of the puzzle.
Is it often distasteful? Sure. A waste of resources? Of course. But while you can question the newsworthiness of saturating the cable and broadcast airwaves with incremental advances in, say, the Scott Peterson murder case, or the wisdom of spilling barrels of ink on Martha Stewart, you have to admit that free competition is an effective way to promote news gathering.
One major exception is the press embargo, when information is passed on to reporters with the understanding that they can’t publish anything on it until a prearranged time. It is a common practice in science and medicine, and has been molded into a high art by publications like Nature, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The New England Journal of Medicine and Science. Journalists who cover technology and business also confront embargoes.
In theory, press embargoes give journalists time to report and write accurate articles on complex issues, although there’s no proof they accomplish this. They do, however, have a number of side effects. Journals announcing scientific breakthroughs get an enviable public relations blast when a dozen publications publish articles at the same time. In effect, reporters become accomplices in a highly coordinated marketing campaign. But journalists get something out of the arrangement, too. It levels the playing field, otherwise, the thinking goes, The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times would have every scoop handed to them.
What happens if a publication breaks an embargo? It depends. If it’s inadvertent — because the writer misread the date and time on the release; an editor pushes an article in his queue to press; or a reporter receives an issue of a journal early and didn’t know the story was embargoed — the publication or publicist will merely lift the embargo and life goes on. If it’s more egregious, a journal may publicly shame the perp or the publication in an e-mail to the other journalists on the beat, and blacklist the reporter, which can cause migraines for anyone dependent on them.
But do embargoes serve the public interest?