The WHO's Silly Embargoes

I've always hated the presumptive embargo - the company or academic journal or quasi-governmental agency that sends out an email blast of "news", but stamps the word "EMBARGO" onto it, stipulating that the information cannot be published until a certain date. Not only does this practice undermine the concept of "news", but it often presumes that the journalist will play ball for no reason other than to get another such email later. As a matter of practice, I disregard the defacto embargo, and consider any press-release sent to me by email fair game, unless I have previously agreed to abide by a hold. That said, I will also admit that never, not once, have I been sent something on presumptive-embargo that I consider worthwhile, so I've never had the occasion to test this principle. Anyway, that's a long preamble for another tale from the World Health Organization's silly use of embargoes and penalties, in this case removing the Associated Press from its distribution list because they violated an embargo and ran a story announcing the eradication of polio in Somalia. To be clear, my sourcing on the WHO penalizing the AP comes from this blog post.

Now the AP and other media like the New York Times - which broke a WHO embargo last year and was likewise banned for two weeks - actually do agree to abide by these embargoes on an ongoing basis, in order to be on the distribution list. But this system reeks to me of an antiquated and impossible-to-maintain closed world of information that fails to serve anybody's interest, not the WHO's nor the media nor the people of Somalia or whereever the WHO may have waged a success. The WHO clings to the embargo because it's a way to maximize the exposure of their release - let everyone publish at the same time, starting at a set time. It's the same principle academic journals use in promoting their "breakthrough" studies. But just as these staid journals are being challenged by the power of open information via open access publishing, so the WHO - of all agencies, after all - should realize that by losing the charade of 'exclusivity' they might gain greater coverage. Put out your press release, but don't stick to an artificial charade. Let the AP dash off their report - that's their value as a news source. Let the NYTimes dwell on the news, add context and expertise, and publish their more thorough story - that's *their* value. And so forth, on to blogs, like this one, that may in fact be interested in the news but aren't privy or won't cotton to such embargoes. Who knows? Maybe we'd be writing about polio eradication, too, instead of the WHO's stupid short-sighted media policies.

Thomas GoetzComment