Of Embargoes and Embarrassments
I was in Rome last week for a conference for journalists covering Catholicism, and specifically the Vatican, and doing some other reporting and kibbitzing. Beats working, I know. On my return I found lots of understandable buzz about the Dolan-Colbert Catholic Comedy Slam at Fordham. It seems to have been a huge success, especially for those who were there. I was invited to attend, and wished I could have made it.
But the event also seems to have generated a great deal of teeth-grinding among some Catholic journalists in particular, who feel that their colleagues in the Fourth Estate who wrote about the panel had behaved unethically in doing so because they violated an embargo on the proceedings.
“When is an embargoed media event, not an embargoed media event?” Kevin Clarke asked at America’s blog. Kevin was arguing that in the era of smart-phones and instant communication, embargoes can’t be trusted to work because folks – as our own Grant Gallicho and many Fordham students did – will Tweet the proceedings anyway since it is so easy to do, and well, everyone is doing it, ya know?
But then that shafts good-hearted scribes who abide by the terms set out by an event’s organizers.
Well, the short answer to Kevin’s query, and that of many others, is that it is NEVER acceptable to break an embargo – to violate a trust and break your word. The means of communication don’t matter. Trust and ethical behavior are paramount no matter what the medium.
But there is an even more parsimonious – and for our purposes vital – answer to the question about when an embargoed media event is not an embargoed media event: Namely, when there is no embargo. And there wasn’t one in the case of the Dolan-Colbert panel, and neither Grant nor Rachel Zoll of the AP nor Laurie Goodstein of the NYT was acting improperly in reporting on the event.
The event was of course expected to be a great boon to Fordham and the wider Church, and originally plans were made to broadcast it. But as way leads on to way, a decision was made not to broadcast or tape the event. That stank. But so it goes.
Still, Fordham officials and organizers understandably wanted coverage of the event, and made sure to invite a number of journalists to attend with the often explicitly communicated expectation that we would write about it. They never said when or how or by what means. Nor were all the other attendees enjoined from writing about the proceedings.
Fordham created a special Twitter hashtag to encourage interaction while the event was going on, and many students did just that. Many others were taking photos and even taping as well. So it goes when you invite 3,000 college students to a celebrity event.
There were no particular ground rules for the writers beyond no taping the proceedings. Some critics and even Fordham officials later referred to an embargo. But there was no mention of an embargo beforehand or a clear explanation of when it would expire – that is, at what point journos could write about the event. There is no such thing as a permanent embargo. By nature it has an expiration date, and if there had been an embargo it expired as soon as students and others started broadcasting the bon mots being dished out by the capable participants.
Some also referred to the event as being “blacked out,” which refers to the ban on any broadcast of the event. Others said it was meant to be “off the record.” But again by definition you can’t have an off the record conversation with 3,000 people who don’t know that it is an off the record conversation.
No doubt different people were told different things, but that is not the fault of the media covering the event; that is the fault of the organizers, and the fault of those journalists who either don’t understand basic terminology or did not seek to clarify the terms of engagement if they were confused.
In short: the event was closed to broadcast but writers were invited to attend and write about the event, and the participants on all sides expressed great satisfaction with the stories about the evening, as they should. Fordham is putting out photos and understandably kvelling about it all.
Yet some are now accusing those who covered the event of unethical behavior. It is a meme that is gaining traction in other coverage, unfortunately.
Why do I go on at such length? Yes, it’s kind of a classic “inside baseball” story for media types. But hey, we love that stuff. (And if you don’t, feel free to move on to my “Mrs. Jesus” post for something really frothy and irrelevant.)
But there are serious issues at stake. I am of course driven by a certain tribal loyalty to members of the guild who I believe are being unfairly maligned (as opposed to fairly maligned). And many of the targets of the criticisms are friends. But even absent such personal motivations I think it is important to understand how damaging accusations like these can be to a journalist, especially in the Age of Google.
Embargoes are almost sacred pacts, and breaching them can damage a journalist’s ability to receive information ahead of release in order to prepare better stories. Moreover, viability in this business is closely tied to one’s reputation as a person of good faith, and impugning that reputation is not just wrong but potentially perilous to one’s livelihood.
The other important issue that I believe this episode reveals is the lack of expertise among too many people in Catholic media, and among church officials and academics who deal with the media.
I suspect there was some measure of butt-covering going on in the post-facto claims that those who reported on the Fordham event had somehow jumped the gun, or violated the rules. Those involved in organizing the event may have been chided by the principals for allowing so much coverage, or any coverage at all. Reporters who didn’t get invited and didn’t cover the event until it was too late in the news cycle may have been miffed. This biz is all about being first (viz., CNN and the Supreme Court’s Obamacare ruling), and getting beat makes reporters look bad. Kevin Clarke admitted that “it does smart a little” to get beat on the story, though he claimed he got beat because he was the only one who played by the rules.
Motivations aside, I think the backlash over the coverage was about ignorance as much as irritation with how it went down – ignorance about basic media terms and customs by those organizing the event, and ignorance by many in the Catholic media who wanted to cover it.
The problem of inadequate expertise is also a growing among secular media pros themselves, as budget cutbacks have eliminated that cohort of grizzled veterans (and they really did used to be grizzly, in so many ways, rather than TV-ready pundits) who could lead younger reporters through the real-life ethical dilemmas that emerge in the business every day, and that are not always covered in journalism school.
Catholic media may not be immune to these problems – the loss of sages to guide apprentices – and perhaps it is having a trickle down effect throughout Catholic institutions that deal with the media. I’m not sure. I do see so many professions as a kind of a guild, and worry that all the cutbacks and constant movement in the workplace are diminishing what was once a general culture of professionalism.
I also think that the emergence of Catholic bloggers who have no journalism training whatsoever is highly problematic. Apart from not knowing basic terms – “embargo” and “off the record” and “blackout” and such – they don’t know the basics of proper attribution. They often cut and paste swaths of copy or even entire stories, or use information and quotations and photographs that they shouldn’t use or don’t attribute. Not to mention that lack of transparency about their funding sources.
These are issues that I think Catholic media should address. Perhaps the development of a “Code of Conduct” for bloggers who identify as Catholic could provide rules of the road for the digital superhighway, and maybe some remedial training for Catholic journalists and institutions who deal with the media could help avoid some of the mistakes and misunderstandings that characterized the Fordham event.
Such an approach might also reduce unfair accusations that can damage the reputations of good journalists and expose the embarrassing shortcomings of those who make unfounded claims.