On 14 January, the journal Science must have been feeling pretty pleased with itself. It was the start of a new year and its top story, embargoed for 16 January, was about the discovery of seasonal variations of methane emissions over certain locations on Mars. Although methane had been discovered before on Mars, the fact that it was coming from specific places on a planet with no active volcanoes seemed to increase the possibility that the source was biological. Science summarised that the research implied “active geological, or possibly even biological, processes”.
The next day brought a surprise. The Sun newspaper was running a front-page story proclaiming: “NASA reveals life on Mars”. Later that day, registrants for Science press releases received an email explaining that the embargo was still standing and that The Sun had merely published a “teaser-type article that only speculated about a forthcoming NASA press briefing, apparently based solely upon a NASA press invitation to that event.” It continued: “The writer of this article is not registered with us, and his report in fact provides little scientific information. It does not reference Science, and it appears to be a purely speculative narrative.”
Behind the scenes, the story was murkier. ABSW freelance member and one-man space-science news agency, Paul Sutherland, was the journalist who got the scoop. He documented his side of the events on his website and within the ABSW’s online newsgroup. He wrote that when the story appeared “there was uproar. The US-based Science journal rang The Sun's newsdesk at 3am demanding the story be removed from the paper's website. They claimed the news was embargoed and were no doubt horrified to learn that it was in the process of being printed on the front of three million newspapers.”
The origins of Paul’s story could be traced to an email freely published by NASA which said there would be a special press conference and advised that it was “to discuss analysis of the Martian atmosphere that raises the possibility of life or geologic activity.” There was no embargo on the release. With a bit of detective work and an interview with Mars expert Colin Pillinger, Paul had his story. Three days after The Sun published its piece, Paul wrote to the ABSW newsgroup confirming that Science had accepted he had no access to, or knowledge of, the paper it was about to publish.
Nevertheless, by 23 January The Sun had been punished. It was struck off the EurekAlert embargo service for six months (read the press gazette story).
EurekAlert is operated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) - the association that owns the journal Science. A ban from Eurekalert not only deprives a journalist of access to Science, but also to the many other American journals and universities that use the service.
Paul felt this behaviour was “outrageous” and said at the time, “it is highly damaging to me as a freelance science writer as it implies that I break embargoes.” What added fuel to the flames, said Paul, was that it appeared to be “an act of revenge rather than a deserved punishment”. Ginger Pinholster, the media supremo at the AAAS, told the Press Gazette that, “we have had many complaints from other [news organisations] who were tremendously inconvenienced and placed at a disadvantage."
ABSW chair Ted Nield responded quickly by writing to Ginger, urging her to, “reconsider what many here think looks like a disproportionate act of petty revenge”. The decision was overturned within hours. But a lot of issues remain.
For one thing, we will never know internally whether The Sun used its access to Science to confirm the story before putting it on the front page. When I talked to Ginger, she explained that they had been able to trace that someone from The Sun had accessed the media summaries that week, prior to the publication of its front page. But The Sun insisted that the Science press release was not used in the preparation of the story.
More broadly, within the ABSW this has led to calls for an embargo committee to be formed, something proposed by member Lawrence McGinty and endorsed at the ABSW’s AGM this year. He told the Press Gazette: "I don't want a debate on whether journalists should participate in them - that would be academic because they are here to stay. But I do feel that journalists should have some say in how embargoes work.” Ted added that inconsistencies in embargo policies emphasised their arbitrary nature.
Unfortunately, since all this frenetic activity, the embargo committee has not yet met. Lawrence has sadly had to deal with illness in the family, but he still hopes to be able to produce a working document in the next few months. And we are all looking forward to a lively session at the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists (30 June - 2 July 2009), "Embargoes in science reporting: Friend or Foe?” This will be an ideal opportunity for those responsible for setting embargo policy in public relations and within journals, to engage in an open discussion with the journalists who have to deal with embargoes. We might all learn a lot, and if we could establish some ground rules and good practice, then the outcome is likely to be better for us all.