News embargoes, TheSpec, CBC, and "the like" who "break" them

 ” credit=”gnackgnackgnack via Flickr (http://flic.kr/p/Dt26u)

Imagine my surprise upon flipping open page two of Saturday’s* Spectator*to learn CBC made an agreement with TheSpec to embargo information about their Hamilton launch.

CBC gave The Spectator the time the new www.cbc.ca/hamilton/ website would be live.

However, not everything went as planned – the embargo was “broken” by – in Berton’s words – “Facebook posters, tweeters, bloggers and the like”.

At 5:25pm Wednesday, I broke the news that CBC Hamilton was live.

@CBCHamilton's website is now live! http://t.co/g5t3I1c7 #HamOnt

— Joey Coleman (@JoeyColeman) May 9, 2012

Why I didn’t break the embargo

Berton writes [emphasis mine]:

CBC Hamilton’s new digital service went live Wednesday afternoon, but wasn’t officially launched until Thursday, and the story was embargoed until then.

Of all organizations, surely the CBC knew the link to its new website would be included in Tweets and Facebook updates almost immediately Wednesday afternoon, which is exactly what happened. What would a service that prides itself on being web-savvy be thinking with such an embargo?

So at The Spectator, we were faced with not reporting information otherwise readily available on the Internet. (We broke the embargo after the information was reported on Twitter, but not without considerable discussion).

An embargo is nothing more than a handshake agreement. News organizations are not bound by them, but we generally respect them.

It’s not just because the editor or reporter who accepts the embargo has a sense of personal integrity, but it also might hamper the entire organization’s ability to be trusted with information in future.

Facebook posters, tweeters, bloggers and the like may feel no such restrictions, understand no rules, and have no such integrity. Nor would they even be aware of the “rules.”

Embargoes make life easier for both the journalist and public relations agent benefiting from often favourable coverage. I’ve participated in embargoes as a national reporter covering higher education. I still receive embargoed information from universities across Canada, solely scientific research embargoes. I’ve never participated in a Hamilton embargo.

I was not party to this embargo, I was not approached to be party, and I would’ve declined to take part on principle – there was no complex information to be digested about this launch.

Berton calls embargoes “nothing more than a handshake agreement.”

For argument’s sake, this could be seen as a secret handshake between a publicly funded body and a for-profit corporation for mutual benefit without any plans for public disclosure.

The integrity issue

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My interpretation is Berton’s not bothered about embargoes, but that his paper was scooped, and delayed in catching up by internal debate.

He makes reasonable points about the role of the embargo in the modern information landscape and its increasing irrelevance as individuals outside of traditional newsrooms are able to publish information.

Being a seasoned journalist, he asks the right question about CBC’s decision: what were they thinking? (I’d like to know the answer)

Unfortunately, he makes a gratuitous generalized statement “Facebook posters, tweeters, bloggers and the like may feel no such restrictions, understand no rules, and have no such integrity.”

To me, it’s a bizarre statement without proper context or any supporting evidence.

It implies the decisions of TheSpec are binding upon others.

How I broke the news

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It was no secret that CBC Hamilton would be at www.cbc.ca/hamilton/, following the naming conventions of other CBC regions. The webpage was live for months with a 403 “access denied” error for users external to the CBC intranet.

I’d been monitoring the site with frequent “pings” to detect changes. I automated the process. At some point after 4pm Wednesday, CBC Hamilton went live. I was covering the City Council meeting at the same time and did not notice the notification from my app telling me the site was live until about 5:15pm.

I quickly tweeted and posted to Facebook, and the #HamOnt community quickly celebrated the launch of CBC in Hamilton.

There was no “hacking” or other nefarious activity as might be implied. It involved some rudimentary programming skills and a watchdog posture.

I broke the news of CBC’s launch the good old-fashion way, by chasing the story and digging. Journalism is the investigation and reporting of news. Embargoes, at best, decrease investigation, at worst, they completely remove it.

If journalism is to be a profession worthy of public trust and distinct from the flood of information, it must emphasis investigation and banish stenography. Some reporting about embargoed information is not journalism but regurgitation.

Publicly funded bodies controlling information

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I’m no fan of public bodies imposing embargoes, but do see them as a necessary evil in very limited circumstances such as the federal budget, large complex documents such as the Drummond Report, and cases before the courts.

In the instances that an embargo is imposed, it should be in the form of a “lockdown” and open to ‘bloggers’ with some reasonable exceptions to make sure the public interest is served.

Most university embargoes I receive are scientific studies and exposed by parties external to the university. Rarely, some institutions will attempt to exchange embargoes for favourable coverage by promising an “exclusive”.  Public information should be publicly available with equal access for both citizens and corporations.

In the case of lockdowns, the public is aware it’s happening and there are no secrets about the agreement. With scientific embargos, both the parties and non-parties are aware of the conditions. In fact, many scientific journals and journalists disclose the existence of embargoes, reveal the subject of the story, and the time the embargo will be lifted.

It’s not time to end the embargo, but it is time to disclose it

Embargoes can serve the public interest. What does not serve the public interest is secrecy.

Failing that argument, secrecy does not benefit journalism because it increases public distrust in the trade and raises questions about the tail wagging the dog – our relationship with public relations and who is really making the decisions of what is news.

The problem here is not the embargo being nullified by non-parties to the agreement, but that it existed in the first place.

Had TheSpec not been scooped, would we have ever learned about this “handshake”?

— JC —

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