When the EurekAlert! press release service was taken down on Sept. 13 after being hacked, there was a discussion about how much journalists rely on embargoes — and whether those standard practices should continue. A post at Embargo Watch succinctly summarized the pros and cons of abandoning the embargo system, leading to a robust dialogue in the comments section.
With EurekAlert! back up as of Oct. 3, it’s likely back to business as usual for those who relied on the service extensively. But if you’re willing to begin moving away from dependence on the service, you may find some perks that will make other aspects of your reporting easier and richer.
I’ll admit that as a brand new green-as-fresh-grass health reporter, EurekAlert! was like oxygen to me for the first year I covered medical studies. I had no sense of where else to find the “best new studies” except through the embargo lists of a handful of the larger journals, such as JAMA, NEJM and BMJ. But these days I check EurekAlert! so seldom that I didn’t even know about the hack until a few days after it happened because I was out of the news loop at the time. But I’m sure I’m not alone in my experience as a newbie.
Fortunately, however, in my early days I was working at a small start-up that started developing quotas for the health topics they wanted to be covered. If those topics didn’t have a study in EurekAlert!, I had to find other avenues for discovering the latest studies with findings relevant to consumers.
Now that I’ve been doing this a while, I realize how valuable that forced opportunity was. First, the press releases in EurekAlert! often represent those able to afford to promote their studies and they may or may not choose the “best” studies. Deciding which findings to write about should be predominantly a journalist’s job, uninfluenced by the offering of press releases out there (even though we know that’s not reality).
Second, having to find other studies that weren’t promoted in a press release meant less temptation to rely too heavily on the press release’s summary of the study. Using only a press release to report on a study’s findings is “journalistic malpractice,” as Ivan Oransky, M.D., often notes. But even if you go on to read the study, the press release’s summary may influence how you read it. You can’t fall into that trap if you don’t have a press release in the first place. (This is one reason I rarely read releases on studies anymore.)
Third, having to discover studies that weren’t in the slush pile of releases meant I learned a lot more about the breadth of evidence on various topics. I gradually gained enough understanding of my various micro-beats to have the context I needed to be a more thorough and thoughtful health reporter.
Finally, not being able to rely on EurekAlert! as much led me to begin recognizing researchers in the literature and figuring out which covered the studies I was most likely to be interested in reporting on. In fact, in the handful of micro-beats that I report on most often, I reached a point where I could read the title of a study and frequently guess who the lead or senior author was likely to be. I was able to see who worked with whom and simultaneously develop a good list of sources for different research areas.
If these benefits sound great but you’re not sure where to start, my next blog post will offer tips on how to break up with EurekAlert! or at least start seeing other people.