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Hacking Into the Science Publicity Machine

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a staff writer for Science magazine and a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and she is the author of “The Score: How the Quest for Sex Has Shaped the Modern Man.”
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One of the weirder revelations to come from the spate of recent hacking incidents was a press release from the University of Montreal claiming a possible link between watching too much television as a child and being bullied in middle school. The release, which came to light in a Sept. 9 hack, was stamped with an embargo -- it wasn’t supposed to be released until the following week, when the finding was to be officially published in a journal.

Maybe the most shocking thing about that finding was that you weren’t supposed to know about it -- at least for a few days. But the hack itself generated some eye-opening discussion about the way science and medical news gets made.

The press release came from a site called EurekAlert, which is currently down following the breach. For years, EurekAlert distributed science and medicine press releases to approved journalists. Most splashy science headlines are born here in the form of releases stamped with an embargo -- a specific time and date before which the information they contain can’t be published. This often results in an orchestrated burst of publicity.

The hacker’s motives for the attack are unclear, said Ginger Pinholster, chief communications officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the organization behind EurekAlert. But this much is known: The incident came to light after the hacker contacted a journalist who was in hot water for accidentally breaking an embargo. The science writer Philipp Hummel said the hacker, who mistakenly thought he had been blocked from the service (he was instead on a “90-day probation”) reached out to offer him special access. “I thought maybe he was trying to affect the system in a way [to interfere with] embargoes,” he said, according to an account published in The Scientist. Instead of taking the bait, Hummel contacted EurekAlert about the breach.

If this hacker objects to the embargo system, he (or she) isn’t the only one: Some journalists and academics have voiced coherent and serious concerns regarding the system. Embargoes allows scientists and their PR agents to manipulate journalists, playing to reporters’ and editors’ fears of missing out on stories that other news outlets might deem important.

There are some benefits to the current system. Pinholster said she’s proud of the way EurekAlert democratizes science information. Some 12,000 reporters around the world are registered to use the site. “It allows reporters -- whether they work at the New York Times or a radio station in South Africa -- to get to read about research and practice enterprising journalism,” she said. And since reporters can see the press releases and papers before they’re officially published, the system allows them a few days to research their stories -- an invaluable resource for any journalist hoping to write accurately about a complex issue.

In contrast, FDA and university scientists occasionally alert small, favored groups of reporters, sometimes offering a scoop on the condition that the reporters can't call outside sources before a specified date and time. A recent expose in Scientific American argued that this practice can have a stifling effect on reporting. 

Inevitably, some journalists jump the gun. Pinholster described as “catastrophic” a leak of a NASA research paper in 1996 detailing a claim that scientists had found signs of Martian life in a meteorite. But as enterprising journalists uncovered, the source of the leak was not a news organization, but the White House. NASA had briefed high officials there, after which Clinton advisor Dick Morris briefed a prostitute he was seeing regularly in the Jefferson Hotel. By this time the news had morphed into a discovery of life on Pluto, but the prostitute apparently knew a good story when she heard one and contacted editors at various tabloids. With rumors floating around about Martians or Plutonians, NASA held a hasty press conference.

But if the public was badly served, it wasn’t the fault of the leak. The findings were very exciting if true, but NASA played down the fact that they were very unlikely to be true. Print stories, for the most part, captured the long-shot nature of the claim (I covered this story for the Philadelphia Inquirer). But television news focused on the excitement, with everyone from Jerry Falwell to the President Clinton talking about the profound implications of the discovery. The scientific community quickly deemed the evidence for Martian life insufficient.

A more recent embargo break occurred in August, involving a study about dogs and their abilities to sense tone in human voices. The website Motherboard jumped the gun there, later pulling the story and apologizing. But by then the embargo was officially lifted, and other journalists were allowed to file stories as soon as they wanted.

Pinholster shared a complaint from the Wall Street Journal’s Robert Lee Hotz about the impact of the break. “It  messed up my own ability to do a decent story. …. Due to the embargo break, all the coverage that I’ve seen so far was by necessity reduced to superficial rewrites of the initial press release” he wrote. “By necessity readers got a deadline dose of gullible pop science.”

Was this really by necessity? This paper wasn’t about some urgent new threat. It was about dogs. What would have happened if the embargo system didn’t exist? Would reporters see the paper and immediately slap something online with no research at all?

Probably not. Instead, without an embargo, editors might not have deemed the dog story breaking news. Perhaps the finding would get covered down the road, in features on animal behavior, where it could be put into the context of other research.

That would have served the public better than a big splash of publicity, said Vincent Kiernan, a former science journalist and now a dean at Catholic University in Washington. He wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the impact of embargoes, and interviewed me on the topic back in the early 2000s when I was a science reporter for the Inquirer. He also commented on this latest incident for the website Embargo Watch.

Speaking now, Kiernan said he had once worked as a newspaper reporter, and he liked the embargo system enough that he had assumed his thesis would focus on how beneficial it was. In his research, he said, “my thinking turned around 180 degrees.”

“It seriously distorts the image of how science is done,” he said. The problem is a false sense of urgency. Under pressure generated by EurekAlert, packs of reporters cover the same stories, often competing over how exciting they can make them sound. That may leave readers and viewers with the false impression that science is a never-ending series of amazing breakthroughs. Worse still, he said, chasing after all these embargoed press releases leaves little time to cover controversies within science, cases of misleading results, fraud, or the way scientists use funding.

That all may be fine for AAAS, whose mission is to advance science. The system also benefits that subset of the public hungry for tweetable tidbits. But it’s not so great for those who want to know what’s going on in the world.

It doesn’t have to be this way, Kiernan said. The American Geophysical Union doesn’t embargo press releases, and the result isn’t rushed, slipshod coverage. The real difference, he said, is that without the hard deadlines imposed by embargoes, AGU papers don’t generate the blasts of breathless coverage that many embargoed papers do.

And that might be fine, given the reality that science doesn’t produce urgent breakthroughs with the same regularity as football games, shootings or political scandals do. Asked about a high-profile finding that was released without an embargo AGU’s executive director and CEO Chris McEntee pointed to a finding that melting ice sheets could leave hazardous waste at an abandoned Cold War-era military base in Greenland exposed to the elements. “The news was covered by many major news outlets including USA Today, NPR and Popular Science, among others,” she said. “To date, we’ve not heard from anyone about problems with scientific inaccuracies.”

  1. In contrast, FDA and university scientists occasionally alert small, favored groups of reporters, sometimes offering a scoop on the condition that the reporters can't call outside sources before a specified date and time. A recent expose in Scientific American argued that this practice can have a stifling effect on reporting.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Faye Flam at fflam1@bloomberg.net

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Tracy Walsh at twalsh67@bloomberg.net