The Washington Post gives the embargo system a kick in the pants.

Media criticism.
Nov. 21 2007 5:46 PM

Breaking News, Not Transcribing It

The Washington Post gives the embargo system a kick in the pants.

The Washington Post stands accused this week of jumping the gun for published information embargoed by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. The Post story, by Johannesburg correspondent Craig Timberg, scooped the competition by reporting the United Nations' plans this week to announce that it was drastically cutting its estimate of the size of the global HIV/AIDS epidemic from about 40 million to about 33 million. The Post published the story to the Web on Nov. 19, and led with the story in its Nov. 20 print edition.

Once the Post Web site published Timberg's story, a UNAIDS representative alerted the science community via e-mail that it was lifting the embargo on them because the "Post decided to ignore our embargo." The e-mail concluded, "For all who honored the embargo, our thanks."

"I didn't break any embargo," Timberg says, who has been covering AIDS in Africa for several years. Had he agreed to an embargo, he would have honored it, he says, as he has honored embargoes before. But he maintains that he worked independently to get the story, which cites UNAIDS documents, and that his scoop is clean.

What the hell is a press embargo, you might ask, and why the hell should I care?

Scientific journals, governmental organizations, and even book publishers give journalists an embargoed sneak peak at soon-to-be-published information in return for a promise that the journalists will hold their stories until after an agreed-upon date. In theory, embargoes level the playing field, allowing reporters to take care and time to get complicated stories absolutely right without fear that somebody will beat them.

Critics of embargoes—of which I am one—prefer to obsess over the down side. Science embargoes, writes Vincent Kiernan in his 2006 book Embargoed Science, discourage press competition, bestow unwarranted deference upon authority, encourage the passivity and reactiveness of pack journalism, and, in the case of science, steers reporters away from aggressively covering science as an institution. He dismisses as oversold the claim that embargoes increase news accuracy, citing the many complicated fields in which competing journalists report complex breaking news accurately.

The journalists who like embargoes—not all do, of course—like them because they provide a dependable news schedule for reporters, Kiernan writes. Embargoes take the stress out of reporting and give all reporters who participate a solid "news peg" for their pieces. Embargoes make journalists adjuncts of the embargoee's publicity machine, he writes. For all the reasons Kiernan cites, I'd add that embargoes dangerously cartelize the relationship between reporters and sources, and, at worst, reporters begin to treat sources as their clients, not their readers.

Did Timberg or the Post (owned by the same company that owns Slate) do anything wrong? Annemarie Hou, head of UNAIDS communications, says that UNAIDS had been "talking" under embargo to a reporter on the Post staff other than Timberg. Although she would not name the reporter, longtime Post medical reporter David Brown says that a UNAIDS representative tried and failed to reach him for the purposes of dispensing embargoed information. The two didn't make a connection until after the embargo had been lifted.

"Craig did not break an embargo," Brown says. He adds that no UNAIDS material was ever sent to him, nor did anybody in the Post's science pod obtained embargoed material from UNAIDS.

It's a long-held reportorial convention that if a reporter can get embargoed information independently, he's free to write about it. If one reporter at a news organization agrees to an embargo, that does not bind others on the staff to the agreement (although it's completely unkosher for an embargoed reporter to leak his restricted bounty to another reporter, either on his staff or off).

By these standards, Timberg and his paper are innocent of the UNAIDS charge of "ignoring" and not "honoring" the embargo. Timberg's story derailed the UNAIDS rollout—the embargo curtain was scheduled to rise at 00:01 GMT on Wednesday, Nov. 21. By giving prominent coverage to critics "who have also said that U.N. officials overstated the extent of the epidemic to help gather political and financial support for combating AIDS," Timberg diverted the conversation from the one UNAIDS officials hoped to kindle.

UNAIDS vigorously disputes the allegations leveled in Timberg's piece, as the Nov. 21 New York Times and other publications attest. Without naming the Post, the Times heavily critiques its piece. The Times reports:

Dr. Paul De Lay, Unaids's director of monitoring and policy, replied that the idea that earlier estimates were deliberately inflated was ''absurd.''

The revision, disclosed in the news media on Monday night ahead of yesterday's official announcement by the AIDS agency and the World Health Organization, puts the number of people infected with H.I.V. at 33.2 million, down from 39.5 million.

The lower figure is based on newer, more accurate surveys in India and several African countries. The costly, time-consuming household surveys made it clear that previous estimates, gleaned mainly from tests on women in urban clinics, were too high.

Dr. De Lay said that Unaids's job was to give advice and monitor trends, and that its budget did not come from the money that has poured into the field recently to buy drugs and hunt for vaccines.

Also, he argued, ''cooking this data would be almost impossible'' because it is gathered by health ministries in each country and overseen by several agencies.

Dr. Kevin M. De Cock, director of H.I.V./AIDS for the World Health Organization, added that it was not clear before late 2003 that the estimates were probably too high. And the biggest drop in the global figures came from revising the figure for India downward, which was done in July.

I leave it to another press critic to judge the Post's take against that of the Times.

Will UNAIDS punish the Post? Probably not, because 1) they don't have the goods on the paper, and 2) even if they did, they'd rather have the paper pissing from inside the tent.

The dust-up illustrates how porous the embargo system is when contested by determined reporters. Timberg didn't violate an embargo, he got a leak and he ran with it, and the sooner UNAIDS makes its peace with that, the better off we will all be.

Even if you don't agree with the substance of the Post's take on the UNAIDS report, please admire it for refusing to sing from the prepared songbook. Here's hoping that the hullabaloo inspires other reporters and publications to give embargoes everywhere a kick in the pants.

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My favorite sort of embargo? The unsolicited e-mail from a publicist who sends embargoed news to me without asking me first if I agree to the embargo. Should I start publishing these nonbinding embargoes as fast as I receive them? Vote via e-mail at slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.