The World Health Organization's silly embargo sanction of the New York Times.

Media criticism.
Dec. 6 2007 3:05 PM

The Times Hears a WHO

An accidentally broken embargo causes the World Health Organization to engage in sanction overkill.

The World Health Organizations flag. Click image to expand.
The World Health Organization recently sanctioned the New York Times

The World Health Organization publicly spanked the New York Times last week for breaking an embargoed study about measles. The offending article was a 60-word news brief by Celia W. Dugger in the paper's Nov. 29 edition. No matter that the Times broke the embargo accidentally and apologized to WHO. The organization issued an e-mail announcing to the press corps the punishment—a two-week suspension of all Times reporters from the WHO media distribution list.

Scientific publications, health organizations, and other groups argue that news embargos serve the public by preventing journalists from rushing to print with hastily written stories about complex subjects. The embargo system, say its supporters, encourages more accurate reportage because it gives journalists a decent interval to analyze and report on complicated information provided by the embargoing organization. By controlling when reporters can publish their stories, say embargo supporters, press competition shifts from who got it first to who got it best.

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But embargo critics, most notably Vincent Kiernan, author of the 2006 book Embargoed Science, say that embargoes discourage journalistic competition, encourage pack journalism, deter the press from reporting aggressively on institutions, and allow institutions to control the news agenda. I, of course, ride in Kiernan's posse. I agree with him that journalists are fully capable of breaking complicated news on tight deadlines, something they do on other difficult, embargo-free beats every day.

The pettiness of the WHO sanction—a two-week timeout in the corner—poses the question of who the organization's act really punished, the newspaper or the newspaper's readers. Few newspapers cover global health and disease with the diligence of the Times. If you're interested in the topic, you naturally fan its pages. To cut the newspaper out of the action completely is spiteful.

Says Laura Chang, the Times' science editor, "It's hard to see how this sanction serves the public good in any way."

WHO spokeswoman Emma Ross, who politely declined to discuss the embargo in detail, told me that punishing Times readers was not WHO's intention. She points out that the paper still has access to the newswires during its time in stir, so its readers needn't necessarily be completely uninformed about what's happening at WHO. Ross calls WHO's action "a proportionate response."

Based on other newspapers' reports on the WHO study (the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, BBC, the International Herald Tribune), it doesn't appear as though the material was so insurmountably complex that it really deserved the lockdown and cogitation an embargo is supposed to provide. When organizations wrap such basic info inside embargo cocoons, they're not thinking of readers. They're thinking of harvesting glory and attention when the press forms a choir and sings the organization's song in unison. Their anger isn't about Dugger or the Times getting the story wrong. It's about not getting the news pop they so elaborately choreographed.

It was well within WHO's discretion to shame the Times with a little jawboning for breaking its promise to keep the embargo. Instead, it gave the paper what Scientist Deputy Editor Ivan Oransky describes as a "public flogging." The organization's sense of justice tells you all you need to know about why embargoes exist in the first place: It's all about being on top, baby.

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