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A hamstrung media

By Peter Olszewski - posted Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Another media shibboleth is now being questioned by publishers who are growing tired of restraints placed on their news reporting capabilities by corporations, governments, and organisations through their public relations companies or media units.

The time honoured tradition of embargoes placed on news stories is now not being universally obeyed and increasingly less honoured.

Slate, owned by the Washington Post, recently reported that the World Health Organization publicly “spanked” the New York Times for breaking an embargoed study about measles.


The punishment meted out by WHO is a two-week suspension of all Times reporters from the WHO media distribution list.

Slate said:

Scientific publications, health organisations, and other groups argue that news embargos serve the public by preventing journalists from rushing to print with hastily written stories about complex subjects.

The embargo system, say its supporters, encourages more accurate reportage because it gives journalists a decent interval to analyse and report on complicated information provided by the embargoing organisation. By controlling when reporters can publish their stories, say embargo supporters, press competition shifts from who got it first to who got it best.

MediaBlab finds that such arguments as proffered by WHO are merely patronising, suggesting that journalists are not capable or working quickly and accurately. There is also an aspect of control regarding such embargoes.

According to Slate, other embargo critics, “most notably Vincent Kiernan, author of the 2006 book Embargoes Science, say that embargoes discourage journalistic competition, encourage pack journalism, deter the press from reporting aggressively on institutions, and allow institutions to control the news agenda”.

In Australia embargoes are increasingly used by public relations companies to control news and the timing of the news reports, to either guarantee the broadest coverage possible, or to control the release of information to suit companies or some sectors of the media.


For example, television broadcasters tend to issue news releases with a 5pm embargo, which effectively gives television news bulletins the opportunity to break the news: in Australia most commercial television networks air news bulletins at 6pm.

The tendency for PR companies to embargo news to try to guarantee maximum coverage is understandable - for them. It’s advantageous but not necessarily to the media outlets that are being “used”.

It does cut out the notion of competitiveness, especially if a journalist is sitting on a scoop only to be slapped with an embargo forcing him or her to wait and go to press with the rest of the pack.

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First published in MediaBlab via subscription-only Factiva on December 11, 2007.

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About the Author

Peter Olszewski is editor of MediaBlab News Bites, published by Dow Jones’ Factiva, and he is also Queensland correspondent for Mediaweek magazine. He has been a journalism and communications lecturer and course co-ordinator for the University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, and a journalism trainer for the Myanmar Times in Yangon, Myanmar (Rangoon, Burma.) His book about that experience, Land of a Thousand Eyes was published by Allen & Unwin.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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