Stempra members might have seen the recent discussions of a case where an organisation was approached to comment on an embargoed report by a journalist, only to be told that said report couldn’t be shared with them at that point. It turned out that the organisation’s experts never got sight of the report before it was published, and their ability to comment on its contents and put it into context for the journalist was severely hampered. In fact even after the story ran the report still wasn’t made publicly available, so no experts or the public were able to assess the evidence and scrutinise the reported claims.
How exactly it came to be that the embargoed report couldn’t be shared with third party experts is unclear and there may have been many factors at play including some beyond the control of the press office running the story. Regardless of what exactly went wrong, the principles of responsible science communication should always be that anything, whether a new scientific study or report, under embargo must be available to be shared with journalists if they ask for it, and in turn journalists must be able to share the embargoed content with third party experts and commentators to garner reaction. Journalists ask for third party comments in order to get an independent perspective on the story, which adds valuable context and balance to their articles and helps the public to better understand the issue at hand. In some cases this may be to add a note of caution to manage patients’ expectations for a treatment, at other times it may be to further explain a highly complex piece of science.
It is very difficult for an independent expert or organisation to sensibly comment on a story without access to the full embargoed details, and this in turn can reduce the accuracy of the media coverage for the public and policy makers.
If concerns over potential embargo breaks is a key factor in an organisation not sharing embargoed material, then it’s worth remembering that most science journalists operate within the embargo system and only seek reaction on such stories from trusted organisations. If you’re unsure about a journalist for some reason then ask the Stempra community for advice. Organisational nervousness about a sensitive story is no justification for not sharing embargoed material if the media strategy involves promoting it to the press ahead of publication.
As conscientious science press officers, we must always strive to follow best practice and ensure that we make all the information available to journalists and commentators, and push back against those within our organisation- or another organisation- who are reluctant to this. The press officer plays a vital role in ensuring that science is covered responsibly by the media, and if we don’t do this then not only will media coverage of the issues we work on be less accurate and the public less well informed, but our reputation as a profession can be undermined as well.
If you’ve been battling with a similar issue and would like support or advice from the Stempra community, then do feel free to get in touch via the mailing list.
More information and recommendations on best practice for science communication can be found in the Stempra Guide to Being a Media Officer.
If you’re not a Stempra member but would also like support on this or other issues in science communication, then you can register to become a member here.