Issue Date: February 26, 2007
Science News As An Object of Study
Some years ago during my stint as a science reporter for National Public Radio, a longtime correspondent with the science desk, Joe Palca, said something during a hallway conversation that has stuck with me ever since. "Science news is almost never really news," he said.
It sounded shocking to me, at first, but of course he had to be right.
When soldiers cross a border at a particular time, that's news. When a plane goes down, that's news. But science doesn't happen in this way. Scientific discovery is a drawn-out affair with no fixed time, and often no single fixed place, in which it occurs. From the first articulation of a hypothesis to a finished paper, a scientific investigation takes months or more. And yet the communication of scientific activity to wider audiences generally still comes off as news, because the story hangs on what news people call "the peg." Way up in most science stories, perhaps in the lead, is a peg that reads something like this: "In today's issue of name of journal here, scientists report this or that finding." Writers and editors have long relied on this peg template to give an air of timeliness to stories about scientific and medical research.
Trouble is, writes veteran science journalist Vincent Kiernan in his compact new book, "Embargoed Science," these are "quasi-pegs." And the widespread reliance by media outlets on such quasi-pegs, Kiernan notes, makes for news that isn't really news.
The non-news of most science coverage isn't even what Kiernan—who recently left a nine-year run as a science and technology writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education to teach and freelance—goes after in his book, a revised version of his 2002 Ph.D. dissertation. His target is a common mechanism of information control in journalism known as "the embargo," a term of Spanish origin whose several uses connote a sense of strong constraint or prohibition.
The way an embargo works in science journalism is that major journals distribute advanced information about research papers that will not become publicly available until the relevant journal issue is officially released and published a few days down the line. In return for this early information, journalists opting to receive it agree to delay their press coverage until a time specified by the embargo agreement. For example, an article set to appear in, say, the Sept. 1 issue of Science, might be made available to journalists via e-mail on Aug. 28 but would be embargoed by Science's publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, until 2 PM (eastern standard time) the day before. That particular timing makes it possible for coverage of the article to begin on TV news stations the night before publication, Kiernan writes, almost spitting at how this often unfairly precludes print journalists like him from being the first to get the story to the people.
Kiernan is at his best and most interesting in tracing the origin and history of the embargo system, which he argues has consequences for all stakeholders in science communication. Among them are scientists for whom coverage can lead to such benefits as prestige, research grants, and professional advancement; journal editors and owners aiming to retain the value of their publications by preventing their information goods and services from getting out in advance for free; reporters who want to be timely, to get the story right, and to write compelling copy; and the public, which reads and perhaps acts on information in the stories.
Kiernan identifies one of the seeds of embargoes with Edwin E. Slosson, the founding editor of Science Service, the Washington, D.C.-based science information and education organization that publishes the weekly magazine Science News (for which this reviewer has worked as a writer and editor). Even in 1921, Slosson was negotiating with scientists to receive proof sheets of forthcoming papers so that scientific discoveries could be explained in lay language at the same time that the associated research publications came out. The American Chemical Society, too, was there in the beginning. "In 1923, James T. Grady, public information officer of the American Chemical Society, obtained advanced copies of scientific papers to be presented at the chemical society meeting and distributed news releases about the papers in advance of the meeting under an embargo," Kiernan writes. That still happens today.
Over time, as more reporters began writing about science, journalists themselves lobbied to the "vendors" of science—the journal editors, that is—for advance access to papers with an embargo agreement. The major argument offered in favor of this arrangement was, and still is, that it increases the accuracy of stories.
About 50 years ago, the table was turned on journalists and the public, Kiernan argues: "The vendors of scientific information subsequently came to understand the power that embargoes gave them over science and medical journalists, and they have not been chary of exercising that power." Among the most troubling consequences, he notes, is the effective prohibition on scientists from talking to reporters about research findings submitted for publication but not yet accepted or published.
Some journals, particularly the top-tier ones, do warn potential authors that such talk could jeopardize consideration of their papers. And that, Kiernan says, has effectively placed a gag on plenty of science stories that enterprising journalists can and do find and would otherwise write about.
Kiernan's thesis is that the embargo, whatever good it might have served in the past, now is a liability for most stakeholders in a cost-gain analysis. For example, the public loses, he contends, because the daily feed of embargoed stories from journals and journalism tools such as AAAS's EurekAlert! (a daily compendium of press releases sent via e-mail to journalists), funnels reporters' attention toward only the top tier of journals, such as Science, Nature, Cell, and the New England Journal of Medicine, or those institutions that fork up money to have their releases included in the EurekAlert! feeds. This creates a kind of elitism that Kiernan thinks is unjustified. Also, because most reporters are receiving the same information, Kiernan says, the embargo system leads to a pack journalism that focuses on only limited regions of the scientific landscape.
For journalists, Kiernan writes with a perhaps unintended arrogance, the embargo unfairly levels the playing field by giving less skilled journalists the time they need to write stories that more skilled science journalists could produce on a much tighter deadline. On top of that, he says, the items in embargoed feeds do not publicize the seamy side of a human activity like scientific research, which has its share of fraud, mismanagement, ethical ugliness, et cetera. And that, he says, has rendered much of science journalism into mere "infotainment" and a tool for elite journals whose aim is to remain on top.
Get rid of the embargo, Kiernan predicts, and reporters and editors will be forced again to develop their own news noses and become more enterprising when it comes to finding and reporting stories. Rather than being offered a relentless flow of stories that are here today and gone tomorrow, the public likely will have access to more in-depth and lasting stories that cover "what really matters," though Kiernan does not specify what that means. Getting rid of embargoes would be an interesting experiment, but I suspect, in the end, there would be little difference in how reporters find out about stories and about what stories readers ultimately find in the newspapers and magazines.
As a science writer myself, recently back on a staff position with weekly and sometimes daily deadlines, I have quickly rediscovered the value of the daily feed of embargoed story leads. I use them all of the time. But I also always have known that there are plenty of other ways of finding stories—surfing the Internet, browsing abstracts associated with upcoming meetings, getting on the phone and shooting the breeze with past sources, visiting laboratories and other venues, even pursuing my own interests and observations.
Embargoes do not stop anybody from pursuing these directions. And the fact of the matter is that most scientific research papers, even in top-tier journals, let alone lesser ones, are so arcane and narrow in consequence that they stand no chance of earning reporters' attention. I tend to look at the embargo system more as a convenience than a sinister means by which elite journals and institutions control information and their own fortunes.
That said, if Kiernan's book provokes debate among stakeholders about how science becomes news, then it stands a chance of expanding the sorts of stories that get into print and in catalyzing far more enterprise journalism than readers can get today. A bonus for some is that as Kiernan chronicles the embargo system's history, he lays bare some aspects of news making that remain behind-the-scenes to most consumers of the information. And his chapter on accuracy in science journalism could help scientists and writers better manage their often different valuations of what makes a good piece of science communication. And that's for immediate release.
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