The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may reportedly still engage in a banned practice that manipulates popular news coverage, and a few of America’s top science journalists are railing against the government organization because of it.
One of them is even suing the FDA for documents related to the matter.
The commotion, raised by NYU journalism professor Charles Seife in a feature story at Scientific American, deals with the FDA’s use of a worrisome media strategy called a “close-hold embargo.” (Seife’s NYU colleague and journalist Ivan Oransky previously detailed the matter in a series of posts at his blog Embargo Watch.)
Close-hold embargoes let a select few journalists get access to newsworthy information, yet only after they agree not contact anyone outside the organization for second opinions.
The result is that due diligence goes out the window: Without the ability to contact outside experts, a bunch of stories appear in the most popular news outlets in the world all at once – yet without any independent expert voices to backstop the new information.
And with the FDA, the stakes couldn’t be higher: It’s an organization whose decisions can determine whether a drug, medical procedure, or policy is safe for the public.
Some anointed outlets who do agree to close-hold embargoes do add third-party sources to their online stories after the embargo lifts, but many don’t. “In that situation, the journalist is allowing his or her reporting hands to be tied in a way that they’re not going to be anything, ultimately, other than a stenographer,” Seife quoted journalist Vincent Kiernan as saying.
As a result of the uproar, the FDA officially banned the practice in 2011.
But journalists noticed that the agency secretly defied itself in 2014 (over a major announcement of e-cigarette regulations), and Seife suspects the FDA is still clinging to close-hold embargoes:
“This policy [against close-hold embargoes] still stands, just as it did before the last close-hold embargo. The smart money says that the agency’s unofficial policy still stands, too-and the favoritism and close-hold embargoes continue. It is apparently too sweet an arrangement for the FDA simply to walk away.”
Seife also wrote: “Absent any indications from the agency, it is anyone’s guess whether the close-hold embargo is still in use at the FDA and, if so, how frequently.”
Unsatisfied with the information vacuum, Seife said he is “suing the agency for access to documents about embargo practices.”
The lawsuit alleges that the “FDA is unlawfully withholding information” from Seife that he requested in 2014 and 2015. Part of the haul of documents he asked for – and received in a heavily redacted form – regards the FDA’s embargo practices.
“FOIA lawsuits take a long time to resolve, and I’d be surprised if things are resolved before mid next year,” Seife told Business Insider in an email. “Right now, they’re providing additional records — every month, they’re required to produce a few. But after that, there’s an additional question of whether or not they’re redacting appropriately. (My view is that in many cases, they aren’t, and we’ll have to fight over that.)”
Business Insider contacted several officials at the FDA office of media affairs for a response to the lawsuit, and the criticisms presented by Seife’s piece, specifically citing his assumption that close-hold embargoes are still being used, but they did not immediately respond.