- The Washington Times - Monday, September 30, 2002

Journalistic ethics are a work in progress, emerging after news events, technology or reporters themselves challenge accepted tenets of the craft.
In years past, the immediacy of the Internet and 24-hour news brought accuracy and context into focus. The Monica Lewinsky matter made anonymous sources and press frenzy an issue. September 11 forced journalists to confront national security and patriotism.
Then there are embargoes. News organizations are plied with announcements from researchers and PR groups alike that are "embargoed" until a certain date, ostensibly to even the playing field and ensure news isn't rushed willy-nilly to page or screen.
Embargoes can vex journalists, who may resent restrictions or question the validity of withholding information from the public. But embargoes get broken, and hubbub follows.
On Sept. 17, The Washington Post ran a story on the makeup of church congregations, based on a 10-year study by the Glenmary Research Center in Nashville, Tenn. The center's director had "provided a copy of the study to The Post," the article noted.
Not so, the group said. The material was officially barred from use until Sept. 20.
"No one connected with the study gave the reporter permission to break the embargo, as he claims," wrote communications director Karen Hurley in a letter to religious writers around the country. "I am sorry for the fallout. I know many of you had planned in-depth stories which had to be aborted because of the pressure to do something quick."
The Post denied it had violated the trust.
The center "is creating an impression that a reporter from The Washington Post blatantly disregarded the embargo. That is not true," responded Assistant Managing Editor Jo-Ann Armeo in a letter published by the Poynter Institute, a media studies group.
The Post had been faxed "dozens of pages of material from the study," without mention of restrictions. The reporter "was not aware of the embargo." A Post spokesman confirmed Friday that the paper stood by the letter.
Meanwhile, the 260-member Religious Newswriters Association (RNA) took up the cause.
The decision to run the story, the group told Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie in a Sept. 22 letter, "adversely affected everyone in journalism, where our word and reputation are our currency."
"Ignorance of basic information about a story is a journalistic failing, not a defense," the letter continued, later concluding: "There is not a lot of virtue in trumpeting a story that hundreds of other newspaper could have printed if they had decided to ignore their ethical obligations."
Was the article worth the fuss?
"We don't want to get into the quality of the article itself," said RNA Director Debra Mason on Friday. "But we had worked with Glenmary extensively to ensure the study was available ahead of time to everybody. This is complex data. You can't do a complete job on the fly."
The Glenmary group took the high road.
"We're not attributing motives to why they broke the embargo," said Miss Hurley. "There was a breakdown of communication with one reporter, which made it stressful for many other reporters. Did I learn anything? Well, I guess this was a human problem."
That was not the case in July, when a Detroit Free Press reporter broke a Journal of the American Medical Association embargo of a story on hormone-replacement therapy. "I consider this breach extremely serious," noted JAMA Editor Catherine DeAngelius, who broke off further communications with the paper.
The Free Press, in turn, denied its reporter had broken the embargo and said she had relied on her own research instead.
Reporters themselves continue to weigh in on it all.
"Embargoes exist only because we participate and allow PR people to call the shots," wrote one visitor to the Poynter Institute's online discussions, www.poynter.org.
Contact Jennifer Harper at [email protected] or 202/636-3085.


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