Start here, read this, then come on back: http://embargowatch.wordpress.com/2010/02/23/why-do-blog-on-embargoes/
Ok? Back? Good.. here we go.
So, I’m not a journalist. I did take some journalism classes nearly three decades ago in college. Damned if I remember what I learned in class and what I learned since. Such is the nature of life experience. I’ve even been paid as a journalist and, more specifically as a tech writer. Never been my profession but, guess what, I have an opinion anyway. Shocking ain’t it?
Embargoes are a deliberate collusion between the subject of the story and the person whose job it is to tell the story. Now, as the link above explains, it can be a useful collusion. I submit, not useful enough to justify. It’s not just science journalism, by a long shot, where these embargoes occur. Embargoes also happen, a lot, in the tech journalism business. A reporter will be given to product information prior to release on condition they don’t publish before a certain time or event.
In the case of tech journalism, so goes the theory, the story about the new Fronzilator 5000 will be deeper and more informative to the potential customer base if the press has had a chance to preview the “next big thing” and can get a story with meat on its bones out quickly and not just regurgitate the press release or be wrong in the facts. A Fronzilator 5000 reported as having only 16GB of Flash Memory when, in fact it has 16 Yottabytes would make the $199 price point less of a breakthrough. Widgetcorp can’t have that so they give out advanced info and embargo it until they’re ready to announce the product.
Here’s the real deal though, the notion of a press embargo is inherently flawed because of the collusion and the costs outweigh the benefits. The press is supposed to be in an at least somewhat adversarial relationship with the subjects of their stories. It’s a journalist’s job to uncover and disseminate the truth as best they can.
A MacMouser Magazine writer is put at a competitive disadvantage if she doesn’t get embargoed information that a reporter from The New Paltz Times does. Boom, conflict of interest. The guy with early access won’t risk losing it by breaching the embargo. If he discovers the Fronzilator 5000’s 16 yottabytes of Flash is only accessible during months ending in Y, he won’t break that story before the embargo and he probably won’t make it the lead of his first published story after the announcement. He won’t, he can’t risk losing his early access,. Besides, at two hundred bucks for 16 Yottabytes, that little problem isn’t that big a deal really. Is it?
What about when he learns the manufacturing breakthrough that allowed the costs to be that low involved kitten livers?
What happens when Doodadtech, the startup, has a new product and they’d kill for any press coverage they can get. The same journalist who worried about their access to the stuff from the much more powerful Widgetcorp has no similar fears of harming the marketability of the Doodadtech Garbonzotron and will, as she should, point out that the Garbonzotron isn’t a mature product. They will, being able writers, try to tell the fullest story they can because doing so is all good for them professionally. Despite the fact that the Widgetcorp Garbonzotron is a wireless mouse that needs no batteries is made entirely of recycled newsprint and costs 27 cents retail, ir misses sending every 9th mouse click on Tuesdays. The good journalist has to tell the whole story. The emphasis will surely be on the thing only a trained tech journalist will notice because that’s their job. Help inform their audience.
Doodadtech’s environmentally friendly wireless mouse dies in the market from bad press and Doodadtech folds. Widgetcorp makes even more money and, 3 years later, 9 months after the Fronzilator 5000’s actual ship date, they fix the bug to great praise in the press. The kitten liver issue is, of course, forgotten.
All mythical and disturbing examples aside, the concern is that there is a force that inherently aligns the interests of the journalist with his (or her) subjects: access. This alignment of interests denies you, the readers, unbiased coverage. This isn’t even malicious or ‘agenda’ driven bias. It’s pernicious.
So, as you read the coverage of any issue, do a little digging, think a bit about why it seems the guy on CNN softballs the questions, who appears on which shows, who takes whose calls.
All that’s obvious of course. You knew all that, so, why did I write this? WikiLeaks.
Are there serious issues with the whos, whats, whys and hows? Oh yeah. Are there all sorts of moral complexities involved? You betcha!
In the end though, do we have enough of an adversarial press willing and able to bring out Truth? In the absence of a trained, careful, professional press willing and able to really dig into their subjects are things like WikiLeaks inevitable and, unfortunately, necessary?
We need to demand better from the press we pay for . We do, all of us, pay for the journalism we get. Shall we try to get more for our money?