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Reporting Embargoes That Cross The Line

Scientific American reported last week on the US Food and Drug Administration's past use of what are known as "close-hold" embargoes.
Andrew Harnik
Scientific American reported last week on the US Food and Drug Administration's past use of what are known as "close-hold" embargoes.

Scientific American reported last week on the disturbing practice known as a "close-hold embargo," where reporters are given advance access to an upcoming news-making announcement on the condition that they not seek outside perspective until the embargo is lifted.

Because NPR was cited prominently in the article as one of the news organizations that agreed to such an embargo in the past, listeners and readers have written to my office with understandable concerns. "Please explain how reporters agreeing to close-hold embargoes is ever acceptable, and why it is not prohibited at NPR," one emailer wrote.

The close-hold embargo is a public relations tool that can have the insidious effect of encouraging reporters who don't want to get beaten on a big story to initially present only the perspective of the newsmaker. (The Scientific American piece focused on how it was used by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as revealed through documents the magazine said it obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.) Later reports incorporating dissenting or critical voices that run after the embargo is lifted can get less attention.

Embargoes — and I agreed to many in my reporting career, I should note — can serve the interests of reporters, not just their sources, by giving them an extra day or two to sort out a complex story off deadline. They can also tie a reporter's hands, and sometimes, when the story is important enough, embargoes get broken. But a close-hold embargo is a step further, as reporters agree not to talk to any outside sources in advance.

I say "agree" because, as troubling as this tactic is, newsrooms are free to reject the deals. The magazine cited two stories where it said NPR did agree. But in one case cited, it does not appear to me that that happened. Nor was there enough information in the piece for me to determine just how widespread the practice is at NPR, or if NPR, indeed, did anything wrong.

Two editors told me it is not a widespread practice at NPR at all.

As Scientific American noted, quoting from an NPR email to the FDA, NPR did agree — after raising strong objections in another email — to abide by close-hold restrictions for an April 2014 briefing on the agency's decision to regulate e-cigarettes.

The subsequent on-air story, however, was not simply a pass-along of the FDA's perspective. Joe Neel, a deputy supervising senior editor on the Science Desk, told me that reporter Rob Stein was able to email others after the embargo expired and before he went on the air to talk about the story on Morning Edition. The online story was updated throughout the day, and another story got just as prominent a spot in All Things Considered the same evening.

Neel said he was not happy with the restrictions, which Stein told the FDA. NPR ultimately agreed to the deal anyway, Neel said, because "we didn't feel like the restrictions were such that we were inhibited from telling the full story." After reading and listening to the pieces, my assessment is that the story was appropriately reported, perhaps because it didn't air and go online until well after the embargo expired.

Scientific Americansaid NPR also agreed to a close-hold embargo two months earlier, when the FDA was announcing a new ad campaign. But the email that NPR received from the FDA, which Neel passed along to me, did not include any prohibition on talking to anyone outside the FDA in advance. (It offers "a closed embargo, in-person only media briefing," but does not specify what that means.) Stein's resulting Morning Edition story includes taped comment from an anti-smoking advocate and notes, "NPR requested interviews with several tobacco companies but they all declined," indicating NPR was not operating under restrictions.

Neel said he could not remember other times NPR had been asked to agree to such close-hold embargoes and if it had ever walked away. Mark Memmott, NPR's standards editor, told me, "I don't know of any cases like that," either on the science desk or other coverage areas, although he acknowledged, "They may not always be discussed with me."

Would NPR agree to such a deal going forward? Neel said it was a "case-by-case situation," depending on how big the story appears to be. "If it's a super-hot story, we're going to scrutinize the conditions more and negotiate a deal we can live with, and which best serves our audience," he said.

From my vantage point, agreeing to a close-hold embargo does not dictate when the story has to run. If editors feel a story is truly important enough and their objections to the reporting restrictions are rejected, it seems to me that they could agree to a close-hold embargo, with a couple strong caveats.

One, the story should not run until it includes any outside reaction called for (as appropriately happened in these cases). NPR should be prepared to hold the story, as needed. And two, stories where NPR has agreed to an embargo should transparently say so. (In one case cited in the magazine article, The New York Times did just that. Then- Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote about it in 2014.)

Neel said, "I think we'll do that going forward." On-air, he said, there's not always time or an easy way to slide in those details, but "online, I see no reason not to."

Memmott agreed. "If we ever are in the position where we agree to a close-hold embargo," and feel a need to run with the story immediately, he said, "I would like us to do that, to tell people, to be transparent about that," and update the story as quickly as possible.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Jensen was appointed as NPR's Public Editor in January 2015. In this role, she serves as the public's representative to NPR, responsible for bringing transparency to matters of journalism and journalism ethics. The Public Editor receives tens of thousands of listener inquiries annually and responds to significant queries, comments and criticisms.