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When Ron Nixon, The New York Times’s homeland security correspondent, got an exclusive story about a top Department of Health and Human Services official admitting the agency lost track of nearly 1,500 migrant children, he couldn’t publish it right away.
It was, without a doubt, the kind of breaking news The Times considers important to delve into quickly and thoroughly. But Mr. Nixon had agreed to an embargo that required him to wait until 10 a.m. on the morning of a congressional hearing about how the agency was keeping track of migrant children to publish his article.
“I was a little anxious,” he said. Nobody else had the story. “I trust the source, but a lot of people on the Hill knew about the testimony, so it could have gotten out.”
Embargoes, set by government agencies, medical journals, theater groups, publishing houses and countless other sources are a common practice in journalism. They entail an agreement between a source and a reporter, or the reporter’s publication, that the story will not be published before a given date and time.
Some people, like Jesse Green, co-chief theater critic, see it as a “gentleman’s agreement.” Others, like Donald G. McNeil Jr., a science and health reporter, deem it a “devil’s bargain.”
For Mr. Nixon, as for many reporters covering government agencies, it’s an ethical gray area.
In the case of his exclusive story on the migrant children, there was a concrete reason for the delay: The congressional source didn’t want to spook the administration and make officials less candid in their responses to Congress.
“It is used to try to control the flow of information and to try to control the narrative in a lot of ways,” Mr. Nixon said. (He added that it was not unique to this administration.)
Indeed, embargoes often function as a public relations tool. But sometimes, it’s more complicated than that.
For example, on the Health and Science desk, — which handles perhaps more embargoes than any other desk at The Times — embargoes provide a window of time to understand information before it’s made public. “They make it possible for reporters to get a complicated, often tricky piece of scientific research that’s being published in a journal and do a thorough reporting job on it,” said Celia W. Dugger, The Times’s health and science editor.
Every week, hundreds or even thousands of studies are published around the world. They are complex, lengthy and almost all embargoed. Reporters get hours or days, sometimes up to a week, to comb through the research before it goes public; they often use the time to send the studies to independent experts not involved in them who can put them into context and determine whether a finding is major.
“There’s no way to be an expert in all these fields and know at a glance whether some semi-obscure discovery is really as important as the journal claims,” Mr. McNeil said. “I cover about 50 diseases, from AIDS to Zika, from flu to polio to dracunculiasis to trachoma to lymphatic filariasis. I can’t possibly be an expert in all of them.”
Embargoes for science and health journals became increasingly common with the advent of what is known as the “Ingelfinger rule,” a term coined for strict research publication guidelines set by Franz J. Ingelfinger, the former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, in 1969. If research slotted for publication in the journal leaked or was published elsewhere, it would not be published in the journal.
Today, embargoes are essentially ubiquitous among top journals, like The New England Journal of Medicine, The Journal of the American Medical Association and others.
Years ago, the Food and Drug Administration infamously attempted to put a “close-hold embargo” into effect, requiring reporters to agree not to seek an outside perspective until the embargo’s lift. Reporters at The Times, along with several other news organizations, agreed. Readers were confused and concerned.
It’s a challenge for journalists: “The whole point of reporting is to be able to get comments from outside sources,” said Denise Grady, a science and health reporter covering medicine and biology. “We’re not just looking for people who are going to say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s a great study.’ We’re looking for someone who will say there are some reservations.” If she can’t speak to an outside source, she said, “I’d rather not report on it at all.”
While it’s certainly not a crime to break an embargo, — and in fact, many reporters do so by accident, by misreading a time zone, for example — it comes with consequences.
“You give your word, and a deal is a deal,” Ms. Grady said.
When one news outlet breaks an embargo and hits the publish button, the embargo is lifted for all of the outlets, sometimes instigating a scramble to the finish line.
On Tuesday, for example, a Bloomberg reporter broke an embargo on a new report from California’s clean-air regulator. Hiroko Tabuchi, a climate reporter who was covering the story for The Times, was traveling. “It threw our plans in disarray, and, for me, showed how working with an embargo does mean you’re at the peril of events like this,” Ms. Tabuchi said.
Another such scramble happened on The Times’s Books desk this year, when The Associated Press broke an embargo and published an article about “A Higher Loyalty,” James B. Comey’s highly anticipated memoir, perhaps one of the newsiest books of the year.
Pamela Paul, the editor of the Book Review, was at a Björk concert in Reykjavik. “It was crazy,” she said. “It was five days before pub date.”
Luckily, The Times’s review of Mr. Comey’s book, along with the fact-checking and editing process, was already complete, and it published later that day. While most books reviewed by The Times are not embargoed, exceptions include political tell-alls, foreign reporting and works by big-name authors like Michael Lewis and J.K. Rowling.
When it comes to books, “most people who break an embargo aren’t doing a real review,” Ms. Paul said. “They’re generally rushing through the book and pulling out juicy bits, generally for a political book.”
Once in a while, The Times makes the decision to intentionally break an embargo.
In summer 2017, for example, the Public Theater’s production of “Julius Caesar” in New York City painted Julius Caesar as a Trumpian figure and quickly amassed enough controversy to enter the national news conversation.
Theater critics typically hold their reviews until opening night, after seeing a production during its weekslong preview period (which is open to the public), but this time, The Times broke the embargo, let the production company know it planned to do so, and sought comment from its artistic director, Oskar Eustis. Mr. Eustis “made a strong argument” for why The Times should not have broken the embargo, which The Times published in a separate article.
“We understood that it would make the Public Theater angry,” said Mr. Green, who wrote the review. “We wouldn’t do it just because we loved a show a lot and didn’t feel like waiting until opening night. It would have to be something that made it newsworthy and made us feel that our readers were just waiting for some kind of authoritative response.”
Mr. Nixon is one of the many reporters who broke an embargo by accident. For a story in April, he misread an embargo’s time.
“I was like, ‘Oh, snap,’” he said. He immediately told his contact at Customs and Border Protection, who, he said, was understanding of the mistake.
For anyone who breaks an embargo, there’s a risk of losing a relationship with a source. Sometimes, the damage is necessary in order to serve readers best.
And sometimes, on the other hand, a reporter may not want to break an embargo even when everyone else is doing so.
“I try to keep my word,” Mr. Nixon said. “That’s currency, especially here in Washington.”
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