Monday, January 19, 2009

"The Sun" smashes NASA embargo - or does it?

There was a great "world exclusive" front page on The Sun newspaper in Ireland and the UK last week with the headline screaming "Life on Mars". It was a brilliant and entertaining science story summed up by the strapline "NASA historic discovery of methane on the Red Planet."

I was really surprised to see it because I get most science press releases and they're usually under "strict embargo" - and there was no sign of this particular story anywhere else that I could see. Including the US press. Weird.

All was revealed in a post on Roy Greenslade's blog on the Guardian site today:
Had The Sun really managed to obtain a story from a US-based source before the US press had got to hear about it? The answer, it would appear, is "yes." And the story behind the story offers an intriguing insight into the way news stories are managed, the cosy world of press releases enjoyed by science journalists (and many other specialist journalists too) and the ongoing problem of using embargos.
I'll let Paul Sutherland who broke the story describe what happened - here's the description on his own blog:
When it appeared, there was uproar. A 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.

But, as the journal itself soon realised and accepted, no embargo was breached because I had no access to, nor indeed knowledge of, any privileged information.

My story was based entirely on good, old-fashioned, investigative journalism.
Paul Sutherland goes on to describe in detail how it turns out that even though there was an embargoed press release in very limited circulation, his story really was an old fashioned scoop where he put together a complicated jigsaw to figure out what NASA were up to.

It's not often that science journalists have an opportunity to stray away from the constraints of journal issued press releases, and I'll leave the last word to Roy Greenslade:
His scoop has certainly stimulated controversy among the community of science journalists, in the States and in Britain. Some of them are clearly upset about Sutherland acting like a reporter while others are wondering whether he has a point about the passivity of a news-managed journalism.

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