Many people does not know, but much of the news about research papers published in the major journals are not new at all for the journalists. Journalists receive the scientific papers of journals like Science and Nature at least one week ahead of publication. With them, we also receive a pack of press releases about the articles and the contacts of the authors. It happens because of a silence agreement between journalists and science journals called embargo system, in which the media professionals receive this exclusive material and promise to only make public the information in a specified date and hour to coincide with a journal’s publication date. Reporters are known for their hunger for scoops, but, in this case, they (we) sit on the information until the designated release time.
No one can deny (and no one does) that this system is designed to manage the flow of new scientific results to the public. But not only this. The journals says that they have this kind of system to improve the media coverage about science. They give reporters time to read and understand the papers, interview authors and prepare an accurate story. Of course it is good for the journals, that receive attention and have stories published about their articles. It is a free advertisement. It is also comfortable for reporters, who always have an infinite supply of stories to fill their schedule. However, is it this good?
One can think of many reasons to question this system. First, it creates an artificial urgency to publish news and makes the public believe that all is very fresh when it is not. We can see at least an ethical issue here. The embargo can also lead reporters to become a bit lazy, depending on embargoes and press releases and not pursuing scoops or more interesting and deeper stories. Second, when the media relay on the embargo system, the stories reflect a manipulated image of science, an image selected by the journals, which highlight only what they consider important.
For these reasons and many others, reporters should have a critical view of the embargo system and think in ways of using it (if they decide to use it) without became ‘addicted’ or being manipulated.
I must say that this theme holds my attention. Back in the university, I started to analyze the use of the embargo system by Brazilian journalists in major national newspapers and websites. In 2012, during my specialization course in the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) I have analyzed the influence of embargo system on the journalistic coverage of two major Brazilian daily newspapers, O Globo and Folha de S. Paulo. I have looked to the stories published that were based on papers from Science and Nature and compared them with the original papers and press releases provided by these journals. My results are being published today (without embargo) in the online and open access Brazilian journal e-Compós.
In contrast to the embargo stated goal, my results suggest that this system does not necessarily provide a good coverage of science, but, instead, leads to a journalist coverage highly influenced by the scientific journals, presenting a consensual view, without controversies and with low plurality of voices.
In many of the news I have analyzed one can see entire sentences and paragraphs copied from the press releases provided by the journals. The majority of the news, 61%, only shows quotes from the paper’s author, without any critical view of the research or from other interviewees. Moreover, in almost half of this news the quotes were not taken from an interview, but from a press release. Only approximately 20% of the news analyzed presented a quote from someone who was not involved in the research that was being announced.
Who is interested can read the article in Portuguese here.