I Get Press Releases (The Ethics of Embargoes)

Something strange happened last night. At 9:26 pm (12:26 am Eastern), I received a press release from Boston Beer. It was fairly minor news and entirely promotional: Sam Adams was the new beer sponsor of the Boston Red Sox. But the first weird thing was that the sender, whom I don't believe has ever contacted me before, tagged the email with an embargo, in place until this morning. (An embargo exists when a news source releases information to the press but requests/demands that it not be reported out until a specified time.) The second weird thing was that by the time I received the email, the Boston Globe had already reported out the news in an exclusive.

Although i occasionally engage in journalism, I don't consider myself a reporter, and so I put this out to Twitter: is this cool? Even leaving aside the Globe piece, is it reasonable to blanket the media with news you'd like them to report, but embargo it in the middle of the night, during which no reporter could actually follow up? What are the ethics here? I had a nice discussion on the matter this morning with people who do consider themselves journalists, and the points surfaced were illuminating. Everyone agreed that there's no way an embargo can be asserted if a reputable news organization has already reported it out. (Sam Adams may have been screwed by the Sox and the Globe, both owned by the same man; it seems the paper got a sweetheart exclusive.)

One thing I've taken away from this is that embargos exist on a continuum from "definitely falls in the realm of journalistic ethics" to "entirely dubious." First, let's acknowledge that sources always try to control information reported out about them, and that an embargo is one of these means used:

"(Embargoes) are not a particularly ethical arrangement from a media standpoint, argues Gary Hill, head of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists, and an broadcast investigative reporter in the Twin Cities. "People will just kind of feed you the information and slap something on the top of it that says this is embargoed until such and such a time. We didn't ask for the information; they just ship the information, and then they ask us to act in a certain fashion, when our ethics say we should act in a different fashion. Its not necessarily ethical on our part to honor the embargo."

That doesn't mean they don't have real value to both reporters and the news source. Putting out advance releases allows reporters a chance to report the story themselves. It gives them a heads up so stories can be ready to go live immediately. In the case of a future announcement, it lets the reporter prepare a story without stepping on the news. Where the embargo question most often crops up is in the case of science reporting. Major academic journals routinely send out embargoed previews of findings for the press to digest and begin reporting.

The flip side--and this Red Sox announcement is a perfect case--is that embargoes can be used to entirely benefit the sender. If it has a commercial interest, the function--as here--is merely to control the rollout of a PR blitz. Embargoes then function as mere coordination to use the press as its medium of dissemination. TechCrunch got so tired of this they took drastic measures:

We’ve never broken an embargo at TechCrunch. Not once. Today that ends. From now our new policy is to break every embargo. We’ll happily agree to whatever you ask of us, and then we’ll just do whatever we feel like right after that. We may break an embargo by one minute or three days. We’ll choose at random.

So how should these things be handled? As I spent the morning reading how other news organizations deal with embargoes, I came across NPR's guidelines, which captured my growing sense of the responsible use of embargoes.

We, like other major news outlets, do often agree to “embargoes” on news. In such cases the information is not to be reported until an agreed-upon time in the near future. We reserve the right, however, to report the news if the embargo has been “broken” by another news outlet or if because of some development we judge that the public’s interest would best be served by disclosing the information now instead of later.

Reporters and their sources have relationships. Ethics govern how both parties can expect to be treated. As a writer, people constantly tell me things they want kept off the record, and I honor that. Off-the-record comments are valuable to me as a writer. It allows me to see the whole picture from the source's perspective. Information that's off the record informs what I write, and it also gives me confidence: since the source has trusted that I won't report that off-the-record stuff, they will give me the whole story. This benefits me because I don't get sandbagged later by reporting something with incomplete information. (That happens fairly often, especially on shoddily-reported stories--mine and others.)

Many people on Twitter pointed out that self-interest should give me the same pause in reporting out embargoed information. An embargo is like tagging something "off the record." Well, sort of. To go back to the NPR guidelines, they note that they will agree to honor embargoed material. Agreement requires a relationship. If a company is using my blog merely as a way to disburse information without offering access to other information, there's no relationship. There can't be agreement if the parties aren't even in discussion.

So blind-copying an untold number of bloggers and reporters comes with risk. I would say it's the reporter/blogger's responsibility to handle any information they have with care, considering the source and what's being offered. But it's the source's responsibility to consider the reporter/blogger's role. We are not stenographers nor part of your marketing team. If you are using us that way, expect to have some of us ignore your wishes. This has to be a two-way street. I will nevertheless honor most embargoes even under the conditions Boston Beer offered the information. (Although certainly not after the information is already public.) I will reserve the right to ignore it if the circumstance arises. My ultimate contract is with my reader, not the breweries I cover.

Jeff Alworth4 Comments