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AHCJ objects to federal agencies' handling of story embargo Date: 10/21/09

COLUMBIA, Mo. - The Association of Health Care Journalists sent letters this week to several federal agencies and a medical journal objecting to the uneven handling of embargoed news.

The AHCJ letters were addressed to officials at the National Institute of Mental Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics to protest the recent handling of embargoes on two autism studies.

On Oct. 2, the CDC and the NIMH held a briefing with reporters about a government study on autism prevalence. Reporters were instructed that the information released during that briefing was embargoed until Monday, Oct. 5, when a related study, also embargoed, was to be published in the journal Pediatrics.

An hour before that briefing, HHS held a telephone conference with advocates and organizations concerned with autism, releasing similar information, although with fewer details. Advocates immediately blogged about the conference and the headline news was soon posted on the Huffington Post and About.com. But even after reporters alerted Pediatrics that the news had become public, the journal refused to lift the embargo.

AHCJ's letters argue that the decision to release embargoed news in a phone call to advocates - who could obviously broadcast it quickly via the Internet - "makes a mockery" of embargoes. The letters note that the embargo was violated by widely read online publications but remained in force by the academy.

AHCJ is asking the agencies and academy to clarify embargo policies, saying that once an embargo is broken - once the news is out in any public forum, whether it's a radio report, a public meeting, a Web site or a newspaper - the embargo must be lifted.

"This incident was disturbing to journalists around the country," said Felice Freyer, chair of AHCJ's Right to Know Committee. "Federal officials and a major medical journal failed to uphold their end of the deal, threatening a system based on trust. Reporters need to have faith that those who impose embargoes will play by the rules, as we do."

Freyer said AHCJ is asking  HHS for its assurance that it will apply embargoes fairly, not muzzling reporters with one hand while spreading "embargoed" news with the other.

The complaint to HHS states: "We understand that HHS wants to be responsive to its constituents and to keep them informed. We have no objection to HHS communicating directly with advocates. But an embargo means that information is not to be released to the public before a certain time. That's what reporters were asked to do. We need to know that HHS will do the same. "

"Health care journalists deserve an explanation for why this happened and a promise that it won't happen again," Freyer said.

AHCJ is a nonprofit membership organization of about 1,000 journalists interested in health and health care. Along with conducting training and creating educational materials through its Center for Excellence in Health Care Journalism, AHCJ advocates on behalf of working journalists.