Embargoes and Science News

By Kiernan, Vincent | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Embargoes and Science News


Kiernan, Vincent, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This paper proposes a model of the processes of the social construction of news by newspapers of studies reported in scientific and medical journals, through the use of embargoed access to the journals by the journalists. Substantial support for the model was found in data from a content analysis of'46,108 coverage decisions by newspapers for studies reported in four elite scholarly journals from June 1997 through May 1998. Associated Press coverage of a journal article was the principal direct influence on newspaper coverage of the journal article, with press releases and the proximity of the research having lesser direct influence.

Major scholarly journals shape news coverage of themselves through a mechanism known as an embargo. Each week, the journals distribute advance copies of their articles to journalists throughout the world, on the condition that the journalists agree not to report their stories until a common time, several days later. The result is pack journalism in which the embargo shields participating journalists from competition, by inducing participants all to cover the same articles from the same journals. The arrangement is an important influence on the volume and nature of media coverage of scientific research, and by extension, public attitudes and knowledge about science, and even key political decisions regarding science policy.1

The present study examines embargoes in science journalism from the theoretical standpoint of social constructionism, which maintains that "mass media content is a socially created product, not a reflection of an objective reality."2 Although external reality limits the news process, social construction operates within those constraints to define the nature of news and how media organizations cover it.3 One sphere in which social construction operates is within a given media organization, with respect to what that media organization defines as news and how that news is conveyed to readers or viewers. An excellent example is a newspaper's construction of its front page, in which characteristics such as story placement, headlines, story length, and graphical elements are used to convey the relative newsworthiness of stories.4

Social constructionism also is evident in interactions among media organizations, or between media organizations and source bureaucracies. "A news organization would usually rather run with the pack than scoop the competition," conclude Shoemaker and Reese.5 Wire services supply content to media organizations, but individual journalists often view wire services as competitors because editors compare their workers' stories to those moved by the wires.6 Whether wire coverage influences newspaper content is an unsettled question in masscommunication research; one newspaper content analysis suggested such a causal relationship,7 while another suggested that editors at newspapers and wire services independently use similar editorial standards.8

Science journalists demonstrate this desire to constrain competition.9 Indeed, journal embargoes set the stage for cooperative behavior among science reporters across the globe, week after week. "We're slaves to the journals," said Washington Post medical writer Susan Okie. "We sort of know the New York Times will do it, and if we don't do it, I'll get a call at 10 o'clock at night saying, The Times has this on page one. Why don't we have it?'"10

Source bureaucracies capitalize on the pack-mentality aspect of journalists' construction of news. For example, one recent article on public relations advises: "The most effective way to get your words into black-and-white is via one of the major newswire services, The Associated Press or Reuters.... Always put an embargo date on the top in bold letters and highlight it. This is the date that you want your story to break in the news. One good wire story can snowball into a ton of coverage."11 (More generally, press releases have been conceptualized as a type of information subsidy blandished by source bureaucracies to entice news coverage. …

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