WHO embargoes health information

This post is about something I've wanted to write about for a while, but never found the time. That's still true, but I've just spent five days as a natural environment for a norovirus or something similar. The good news is I lost 5 pounds. But the bad news -- and there was a lot of it -- is that as I recover I am desperately trying to catch up on too many urgent things that didn't get done. Still, this story is something I want to write about, so I'll do it more briefly now and come back at some later point for more analysis. What's bothering me? Press embargoes:

The World Health Organization publicly spanked the New York Times last week for breaking an embargoed study about measles. The offending article was a 60-word news brief by Celia W. Dugger in the paper's Nov. 29 edition. No matter that the Times broke the embargo accidentally and apologized to WHO. The organization issued an e-mail announcing to the press corps the punishment--a two-week suspension of all Times reporters from the WHO media distribution list. (Jack Shafer, Slate)

If you don't know, a press embargo is an agreement with a journalist that the article or information being provided to them is not to be disclosed until a specific date and time. The alleged idea is to give journalists time to study the paper and write about it more intelligently. While most scientific journals don't consider bloggers members of the press, in the interests of full disclosure I have to say I have been provided with embargoed articles on a number of occasions and have signed an agreement with Public Library of Science (PLoS) to honor their embargoes in exchange for advanced word of selected articles (BTW, PLoS is one of the few, maybe the only, major science journal to include science bloggers on their advance notice list along with journalists, for which they should be commended -- this is independent of the question of embargoes in general). Still, I do not approve of embargoes on general principles although I am willing to take advantage of them if they exist. I am scrupulous about honoring them because while I don't agree with the idea, I keep my word. No one is forcing me to get advance information.

But. . . I don't see they serve any useful purpose except for getting publicity for the journal or source involved. Which is, of course, why the journals do it. A reporter is more likely to write about something they have invested some effort in reading. An embargoed paper is, in effect, a pitch to reporters to write a story about their product. Slate's media critic, Jack Shafer, gets it exactly right:

Based on other newspapers' reports on the WHO study (the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, BBC, the International Herald Tribune), it doesn't appear as though the material was so insurmountably complex that it really deserved the lockdown and cogitation an embargo is supposed to provide. When organizations wrap such basic info inside embargo cocoons, they're not thinking of readers. They're thinking of harvesting glory and attention when the press forms a choir and sings the organization's song in unison. Their anger isn't about Dugger or the Times getting the story wrong. It's about not getting the news pop they so elaborately choreographed.

WHO has no business embargoing any information. If it's fit to put it out to the public, then put it out to the public. Don't put a timer fuse on it. When WHO embargoes information it is manipulating the news. Yes, I know, others are doing it, too. Not a reason for the World Health Organization to do it. I have to agree with The Times on this one:

Says Laura Chang, the Times' science editor, "It's hard to see how this sanction serves the public good in any way."

Not just the sanction. The embargo itself.

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At the same time, the New York Times didn't have to agree on the embargo in the first place, and did break the agreement.

I've seen this from the other end: a journalist broke a promise not to publish certain information before a given date (given because she was on a day trip from Stockholm and reasonably didn't want to make the long journey again in another two weeks) as the last set of experiments were still not done. When she published that information just a couple of days later she effectively "poisoned" the last experimental group, the round had to be called off and rescheduled six months later with new participants so they could be reasonably certain any participants did not associate the experiments with the article.

Janne: I gather that in The Times case it was inadvertent. that happens and it wasn't willful. My point was that WHO shouldn't have been embargoing in the first place. Your example certainly shows how breaking an embargo can be harmful but it is a bit extreme and unusual. You could say that the investigator shouldn't have taken the chance in that case since the information wasn't ready to be released. If you do someone a favor and they abuse it I guess there's nothing you can do but that doesn't seem a case of embargo breaking in general.

Without commenting on the NYT case specifically - and flagging up front that most journalists I know dislike embargoes, because we are aware of how they can be abused - I'd point out that they do possess some strategic value in terms of communicating science/new findings to the public.
That's because, functionally, they hold back the broadcast media while the print media gets organized.
Generally speaking - this of course is not always true - broadcast-media reports are shorter and less nuanced. Equally generally and with the same caveat, print reports are longer and do a better job of explaining, drawing relevance, etc. It is in science's interest to have the print reports out there, because they tend to do a better job of communicating the science than the broadcast reports do.
But print outlets only do those reports because the embargo levels the competitive playing field. Holding every outlet back with the starting gun of the embargo offers some hope that, when the story goes public, print will capture some of the available eyeballs.
Here is what might happen if there were no embargo system: Every outlet grabs the report and produces their own version as quickly as possible. Broadcast, because it produces a smaller report, gets the story out first. Print editors, figuring the news value has vanished, decline to invest their staff's time in their own version. The broadcast report becomes the sole report. Public understanding of the issue ends up less thorough than it might have been.
The Web muddies this somewhat, because it allows print to throw up initial reports that are as quick and as un-nuanced as broadcast versions; you have to hope that the print outlets will update later with a fuller report. Muddying the water further, some broadcast outlets, such as CNN and NPR, put post-broadcast or simultaneous stories on their sites that are indistinguishable in length and detail from print-media stories.
But, again speaking generally, I have to reluctantly say that embargoes have some public benefit. There are stories that I did as a print reporter that I am absolutely sure I would not have been allowed to cover if broadcast had gotten there first.

maryn: You make some excellent points I hadn't considered. Regarding the last, though, it doesn't go to the point whether it is good or bad you chose that story -- the one the journal (say) in effect manipulated you into covering -- instead of another one. One of the effects of the use of the media by big journals like NEJM and Science is that some stories they know will get covered -- e.g., diet, obesity, cancer -- have led to the continual whipsawing of the public so that no one knows what to believe anymore. Those papers are important and valuable in the scientific context only after they enter into the sifting and winnowing that real peer review -- the kind that comes after publication -- has a chance to work.

One reason I want to write more about this at some point is that it deserves a more nuanced treatment than I gave it here, as your comments clearly show.

WHO does more than embargo information. The organization appears to also desire to insure morticians are employed full time.
The recently reported bird flu cluster in China, involving a father and son, indicates the father developed symptoms on December 2, the day his son died. His son developed symptoms on November 24 and was hospitalized November 27.
The gap between the disease onset dates appears to indicate human to human contagion. If both had been infected by a common bird source, the should have both become ill at the same time.
Over and over again, the authorities in Asia, and WHO seem dedicated to being brain dead, by almost always insisting there was a sick bird, perhaps 2000 miles from the site, that died of bird flu.
Obviously, WHO bird flu specialists become very ill from anxiety if they cannot find a bird infected with bird flu near the location of all human bird flu clusters.
And it is possible this mental derangement in WHO bird flu specialists will promote a bird flu pandemic, thereby assisting morticians all over the world to have large bank accounts. Please remember, any evidence of human to human bird flu contagion must be kept secret, so morticians will be fully employed.
If you have read in books on the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, you know that the victims would often bleed from the nose, the mouth, or the ears. Breathing would become extremely difficult, and the skin color would change to black, or blue, as they died. If this happens to one of your loved ones during a bird flu pandemic, thank WHO and all governments for their stonewalling the truth about human to human contagion, because their actions are a crime against humanity.

@ Revere: " it doesn't go to the point whether it is good or bad you chose that story -- the one the journal (say) in effect manipulated you into covering -- instead of another one."

Oh, absolutely. This is the very legitimate reason (well, one of them) why reporters so dislike embargoes - the embargo holds back journalism in the service of giving a particular set of findings a huge PR boost. (And who's to say who decided who gets the PR boost, and why, she muttered darkly.)
They also encourage pack thinking. And though most of us aren't likely to admit it, we find the implication that we couldn't manage the reporting without the help of the embargo's breathing space somewhat... insulting.
Also your point - that the currency given a set of findings by such a PR boost helps to confuse the public about the true legitimacy (or not) of the findings over-against earlier/later findings - is very well-taken.
I don't think the phenomenon I described was one of the goals of embargoes. Call it a useful unintended consequence. But real nonetheless.

maryn: Remarkably well stated. The first presentation was as good a compact, concise, subtle, and thoroughly informative piece of writing as I have had the pleasure of encountering in quite a long time. Really nice work. Very, very well written. Kindly stick around. You're smart. Revere appreciates you, too...obviously.

I have been amazed so far by the dialogues and inputs on this blog. As a new participant (less than a month), I would state my appreciation especially this time regarding WHO embargo issue. Janne, maryn, revere are brilliant to supply from broad perspectives; classic blend realistic.

At the first glance at this topic, as a NYT regular reader like me, my first impression for rating this issue about WHO's response was an egg to hit a rock based on the historic credibility between these organizations. NYT's tendering apology was graceful as she used to be fairness in terms of precision and depth of the news. Perhaps, maryn has soothed my biased impluse a bit by plausible legitimate journalism practices.

And yet as a marine virologist in practice myself, I understand the speed of virus multiplication, and the serious outbreaks may happen in 2-3 days, then I have to think twice and sadly have to agree with herman's tone and speculation. It is rather prophesy to me as far as viral infection and its infection model is reviewed.

2008 Olympic is coming, is WHO leadership capable to work with China government who is one SC of the UN to swim across this challenge, or WHO need organizations like NYT or BBC as partners in dealing with a safer global gathering. I can not say assure, because it is beyond anyone's competence.

Or perhaps NYTimes should sermon Maureen Dowd to step in, as her credit in comment her coined W. Bush as usual and extending to the global health issue like this which is at stake. Unfortunately, NYTimes is so independently operating, who will write in OP-ED the soonest?