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PostWatch: An irregular correction to the Washington Post

Brought to you by Christopher Rake


Friday, September 20, 2002
9:53 AM

Another embargo imbroglio... Bill's Content spots info on accusations that the Washington Post broke an embargo on a recent census of religion in the U.S. There's no way to tell for sure what happened, of course, but we've seen this movie before, when a reporter wrote about that hormone-replacement study. Back then, as now, the reporter said she got the information ahead of the embargo on her own.

Bill's weighs competing arguments and has this take:

Newspapers are under no ethical obligation to honor an embargo on information sent to them unsolicited. In the end, that has to be the only ethical consideration: does the public's need to know supercede the benefits of breaking an embargo? Is it does, I say go for it.

Well....usually you don't get on an embargo list unless A. You've already established a relationship with the institution, 2. You're a big media outlet, or C. Both. So if you've cultivated a relationship, are provided advance info on the basis of trust, and then violate it, in my mind you're not existing on some kind of higher moral plane--you broke your word, and as an editor I probably wouldn't want that kind of reporter working for me. On the other hand, if you're pursuing the story on your own initiative and have good enough sources to leak the report to you in advance, that's usually a good thing.

I know, inside baseball. I'm a writer, I can't help it.

A lot of this stuff revolves around the idea of mutually beneficial exploitation. Institutions have embargoes to hype their study and control timing. Reporters accept them to write better stories, since embargoes give them the time to understand complicated subjects well before a deadline. The U.S. saw what happens when you don't have embargoes during the conclusion of the Gore-Bush election dispute, with reporters frantically flipping through the pages of the Supreme Court's decision on live TV. I think that was entertaining, one time.

UPDATE: Bill pays us a visit in the comments section and points out he's commenting on unsolicited embargoes.

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