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Drug regulator ‘doing deals’ with journalists to control medical news agenda

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Journalists from national newspapers, TV and radio are being offered ‘scoops’ – where they get an announcement a day before it is officially released – in exchange for being told who they can, and can’t, contact in relation to the story.

The arrangement was revealed by editors at National Public Radio who were first approached back in 2014 by officials from the US’s drug regulator, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They were told they would be included in a private briefing that would be held a day before the actual announcement – and would be handed a sheet that listed the names of people they could contact for further amplification of the story. They were told they couldn’t contact anyone who wasn’t on the sheet.

NPR reporter Rob Stein wrote to the FDA, asking for some leeway in who he could contact, but was “turned down flat”, he said.

NPR agreed to the “Faustian pact” with the FDA and turned up to the private briefing that included journalists from a dozen top-tier media organisations, including the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and CBS, NBC and CNN.

This arrangement, where an organisation controls the shape of the news, is called close-hold embargo. It’s not known just how many similar arrangements have been struck by other associations and companies because the FDA deal was revealed only because of a “wayward sentence” that had appeared in the New York Times, according to journalists at Scientific American.

Margaret Sullivan, formerly an editor at the New York Times, had written: “I think embargoes that attempt to control sourcing are dangerous because they limit the role of the reporter whose job it is to do a full look at a subject. It’s really inappropriate for a source to be telling a journalist whom he or she can and can’t talk to.” Despite her misgivings, her newspaper had agreed to the FDA arrangement.


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