Sunday, November 28, 2021

Curse of the Cinderella embargo dogs public information

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We need to talk about a pestilence that causes an itch in Irish journalism, especially in reportage of large companies and State organisations. I refer to publication embargoes, which are endemic. Community transmission of them is currently way too high. We need a circuit breaker to stop the news agenda being overly manipulated by public relations.

Embargoes are agreements between journalists and sources, made without the knowledge of readers or viewers, to delay publishing a story until a specific day or time. “We promise not to reveal your news until you say so.” It is one of those navel-gazing media issues that ought to pass by ordinary readers.

The truth is that the now virus-like prevalence of embargoes in journalism, and the supine manner in which they are accepted, skews the flow of media content to readers and viewers every day, to the benefit of major organisations. The journalism-consuming public ought to be included in the debate about embargoes – to be told how they can be useful, but also why they’re often problematic.

The staggering prevalence of embargoes in business journalism risks chipping away at editorial independence

All media organisations in Ireland and abroad regularly receive information “under embargo”. It occurs multiple times a day in business journalism. It is almost always supplied in advance by public relations professionals working on behalf of large organisations. It is supplied on the basis that it, in effect, remains “off the record” until the agreement expires.

It is not legally binding. Rather, it is a form of etiquette. At any one time, most major news organisations in Ireland sit on the same pieces of embargoed information, keeping them secret from readers and viewers until such time as everybody reports them together. Embargoes usually last only a day or two.

They are not inherently a bad thing. I, along with most other journalists, regularly adhere to embargoes if I judge it to be advantageous. It can be useful for both sides – the journalist and the source. If the information is complex or technical, such as a scientific or financial report, the journalist has time to absorb the data and ask intelligent questions before the pressure of publication. An embargo can be a valuable heads up.

It also can be operationally efficient. For example, stories that appear on a Monday are generally written the day before on Sunday, when the rest of the working world is on a day off and harder to reach. They often contain information obtained under embargo earlier in the week, when everybody was at work and issues could be ironed out.

Complex information

Embargoes are also of benefit to the source, if it means complex information is better understood. The company or State agency can later make the official announcement, assured that it will be accurately reported to the public by a well-informed journalist. Embargoes are also especially common in arts and technology journalism, allowing reviewers to have their verdicts ready in time for the official release of a book or product. That is in everybody’s interests.

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