The Whole Picture: Close-Hold Embargoes Shape What Consumers Know and When They Know It

The Whole Picture: Close-Hold Embargoes Shape What Consumers Know and When They Know It

Introduced by the Food and Drug Administration, the practice has been used by many other organizations

October 3, 2016

Can what consumers don't know end up hurting them?

Science journalists think that it can, and one is taking the government to court over it. Charles Seife, professor of journalism at New York University, is suing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over a practice theoretically banned by the agency's own media policy but still possibly in use there: the close-hold embargo.

Taking the Pressure Off

In an article published by Scientific American, Seife writes that press embargoes—agreements between journalists and their sources—were first introduced in the 1920s by science journalists who needed time to research and write their stories but who didn't want other journalists to scoop them, i.e. publish the story before they could do so. Embargoes take the pressure off when several journalists agree to them: the source gives the journalist the access and information he or she needs, and in return the journalist agrees not to publish the story before an agreed-upon date and time.

The situation seemed to be a win-win for the journalists, but what about the scientists? They were not fans of the embargo at first, but they quickly changed their minds, writes Seife: "[S]cientific institutions soon realized that embargoes could be used to manipulate the timing and, to a lesser extent, the nature of press coverage. The result is a system whereby scientific institutions increasingly control the press corps."

The close-hold embargo seems to be the prime example of such control. Introduced by the FDA in 2011, the terms of the close-hold embargo dictate that, in return for access to the information that journalists need to write their stories, the journalists must agree neither to publish the story before the agreed-on date and time, nor to speak to any sources outside the organization.

The result of this practice is a limited picture of the news—consumers know only what the organizations want them to know, when they want them to know it.

"[D]ue diligence goes out the window," writes Business Insider. "Without the ability to contact outside experts, a bunch of stories appear in the most popular news outlets in the world all at once — yet without any independent expert voices to backstop the new information."

The close-hold embargo is a particularly alarming practice for the FDA to engage in, given that the purpose of the government agency is to protect the health and safety of consumers in the food and pharmaceutical industries. Its decisions can determine which drugs, medical procedures, and foods are safe for consumers. If the FDA isn't giving journalists the whole picture, then most consumers aren't getting it either.

The Whole Picture?

However, the FDA's official news embargo policy seems to insist that it is giving journalists the whole picture, or at least that journalists have permission to put it together from additional sources: "A journalist may share embargoed material provided by the FDA with non-journalists or third parties to obtain quotes or opinions prior to an embargo lift provided that the reporter secures agreement from the third-party to uphold the embargo."

This is a reversal of the original policy instituted in 2011, which imposed the limitations regarding sources. But with the current policy in place, the close-hold embargo is a thing of the past, right?

Wrong.

The FDA violated its own policy in 2014. Seife discusses a document laying out the agency's media strategy for obtaining coverage of a new public health advertising campaign, stating that the document describes a plan for a "media briefing for select, top-tier reporters who will have a major influence on coverage and public opinion of the campaigns…. Media who attend the briefing will be instructed that there is a strict, close-hold embargo that does not allow for contact with those outside the FDA for comment on the campaign."

Why would the agency violate its own policy? The reason is simple: control.

"Media coverage of the campaign is guaranteed; however, we want to ensure outlets provide quality coverage of the launch," the document states. "The media briefing will give us an opportunity to shape the news stories, conduct embargoed interviews with the major outlets ahead of the launch and give media outlets opportunities to prepare more in-depth coverage of the campaign launch."

If the FDA is able "to shape the news stories," then it can control what consumers know and, more important, what they don't know.

Embargoes Are Spreading

It is not known whether or not the agency is still using close-hold embargoes; it refused to answer Seife's inquiry on the matter. But he believes that it is likely.

"The smart money says that the agency's unofficial policy still stands, too—and the favoritism and close-hold embargoes continue," he writes. "It is apparently too sweet an arrangement for the FDA simply to walk away."

The lack of answers is Seife's reason for suing the FDA specifically, but it isn't just the government that is—or at least has been—using the close-hold embargo and certain variations of it.

"[T]hey have been cropping up in other forms of journalism, such as business journalism as well," he writes.

New York Times former public editor Margaret Sullivan agrees.

"More and more sources, including government sources but also corporate sources, are interested in controlling the message, and this is one of the ways they're trying to do it," she told Seife.