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How the U.S. Food and Drug Administration controls science stories


From Charles Seife at Scientific American:

The deal was this: NPR, along with a select group of media outlets, would get a briefing about an upcoming announcement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration a day before anyone else. But in exchange for the scoop, NPR would have to abandon its reportorial independence. The FDA would dictate whom NPR’s reporter could and couldn’t interview.

The government wouldn’t budge on that, and the situation only accidentally came to light. But practically the eintre Who’s Who of big U.S. media science journalism showed up to cover the “story.”

This kind of deal offered by the FDA—known as a close-hold embargo—is an increasingly important tool used by scientific and government agencies to control the behavior of the science press. Or so it seems. It is impossible to tell for sure because it is happening almost entirely behind the scenes. We only know about the FDA deal because of a wayward sentence inserted by an editor at the New York Times. But for that breach of secrecy, nobody outside the small clique of government officials and trusted reporters would have known that the journalists covering the agency had given up their right to do independent reporting.

The traditional “embargo” on a science story enabled journalists to collect information privately before everyone published, so that the stories would not sound like—and be—mere media releases.

The new close-hold embargo seems aimed at the opposite. Science stories will be media releases from official sources during the period when everyone is paying attention.

Properly speaking, we should not regard these types of communications from Top Media as stories at all, rather as announcements. We should not regard the media who are prepared to co-operate  as news sources, rather as purveyors of government announcements.

There are a lot of these “disturbing” (Scientific American) developments out there now. But at least we are reading about it. We can’t fix what we don’t know or can’t acknowledge.

See also: Study results released under court order show patients misled. Peer review: It’s not good if courts are catching more of this stuff than peers.

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