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Monday, 26 January 2009

Ginger Pinholster replies

Following the publication of Ted Nield's letter to her, Ginger Pinholster of EurekAlert! has asked that her reply and her subsequent letter to Chris Pharo of The Sun be published also.

To Ted Nield
(Chair, ABSW)

Good morning, Ted. I hope that this reply finds you well.

Your input is very helpful, thank you. Please be assured that I'm in the process of re-evaluating the Sun decision. As I told the writer who contacted me yesterday, we are always happy to reconsider decisions.

This morning, I e-mailed a handful of UK-based reporters not affiliated with your inquiry to request their counsel. I also copied a key EurekAlert! advisor and the heads of the NASW and the WFSJ (who are copied again here), inviting them to weigh in as well. My message to that group is below. I'm happy to share this with you in confidence, but on the condition that you refrain from re-distributing it to anyone. I was pleased that my conversation with Mr. Pharo of the Sun seemed to be a productive one this morning. I'll let you know of the final outcome shortly, after I've received some opinions via email.

I'm certainly open to the notion that I might have made a wrong call in this case. I hope that I'll never become so weary of these types of matters that I become arrogant. However, I do firmly reject your allegation of any "petty revenge" modus operandi; none of our decisions are made unilaterally, and all rely upon the input of reporter-advisors. As you might be aware, we have been attempting to the best of our abilities to respond appropriately to a troubling spate of UK-based embargo violations. So, I do think that the ABSW, as the region's professional science journalism society, could play an extremely helpful role in clarifying codes of conduct regarding embargo policies -- on both sides of the fence. I will welcome this input from the ABSW.
Kind regards, Ginger Pinholster

To Chris Pharo
(The Sun)

Dear Mr. Pharo:

Thank you for your phone call this morning. I was impressed that you seemed to be taking this matter seriously, and further that you clearly were genuinely interested in thoughtful problem-solving. As I told you today and Ms. Martina Booth yesterday, I am always happy to re-evaluate embargo-related decisions when sensibly approached in a non-threatening manner, so thanks for the kindness of your tone.

As a first note, I'd like to apologize to the heads of the NASW and the WFSJ since I have copied them on several e-mails already today, and they likely are weary of it by now. But, I'm hoping that this can be the final chapter, describing an amicable resolution.

As I told Mr. Ted Nield of the Association of British Science Writers earlier today, I would first like to emphasize that none of our embargo-related decisions are made unilaterally. I always seek input from at least one reporter-advisor before issuing a ruling, as I did in this case.

I also would like to take this opportunity to provide some broader perspective. We have been attempting to the best of our abilities to respond appropriately to a troubling spate of UK-based embargo violations. As a first step, in response to requests from key British journalists, EurekAlert! recently began a systematic audit whereby all registrants are being asked to reconfirm their current status. In addition, I sent a preemptive reminder notice to all registrants, and thus I was indeed motivated to respond swiftly and firmly to the recent episode involving the Sun.

For the record, I will provide the chronology of the recent case, from my perspective. As you know, non-registrant Mr. Paul Sutherland, being an enterprising journalist, seized upon an unmarked NASA press event invitation to prepare a teaser story related to a forthcoming, embargoed Science paper. While he was not registered with us, two other Sun reporters were in our database. Our long-standing policy, in keeping with what reporter-advisors have asked us to do, has been to revoke access for all registrants at any media outlet involved in an embargo violation. Further, upon investigation, our login records indicated that those reporters had browsed our embargoed section just prior to the appearance of Paul's story. Admittedly, this did raise my suspicions and may have further colored my decision. I would like to speedily emphasize here, however, that I have no evidence whatsoever suggesting that the two Sun registrants shared any embargoed information with Mr. Sutherland. In fact, Mr. Sutherland and one of the registrants have both stated that this absolutely was not the case. You have reaffirmed this as well, and I of course take you all at your word.

However, exacerbating matters was the fact that I did not receive any helpful response by (a) telephoning the Sun's newsroom on the night the story appeared; or by (b) emailing the two registrants to alert them to the problem and ask for their help. A night editor at the Sun seemed unconcerned, and the two Sun registrants never answered my email.

Given that we've had a prior embargo violation by the Sun, I elected to remove both registrants from access. My response had little to do with Mr. Sutherland's story -- which it's clear he developed using a source that was fair game: a NASA document that unfortunately was not marked as embargoed -- but mainly reflected the fact that the Sun's response, or lack thereof, struck me as cavalier. Also, again, I had to take into consideration the prior violation, and then put it into the perspective of all the UK-related problems we have been experiencing lately.

As a further response to the recent unpleasantness, I also of course did contact NASA to explain why routing unmarked press invitations to tabloid journalists is perhaps not in the best interests of the broader reporting community.

My understanding is that the Association of British Science Writers has now instituted an inquiry.

What I've told Mr. Nield is that I believe the ABSW, as the region's professional science journalism society, could play an extremely helpful role in clarifying codes of conduct regarding embargo policies -- on both sides of the fence. I will welcome this input from the ABSW. I further will enhance our existing reporter-advisory committee to include UK representation.

Meanwhile, after seeking and obtaining further counsel from additional reporter-advisors today, I am lifting the ban on the Sun and reinstating the two registrants. (Please give me a couple of hours to implement this process since my staff member who handles those tasks is out of the office.) By way of this e-mail, I officially acknowledge that Mr. Sutherland was never in violation, nor did I suggest this to anyone at any point in time; the ban was implemented, as I've explained, based on the lack of any positive response from the Sun, and in light of the prior violation.

Please note, based on the earlier violation, which was unambiguous, if there is any future embargo problem -- whether deliberate or accidental, between now and the end of 2009 -- I will again revoke Sun registrants' access to embargoed content on EurekAlert!. To be fair to all, and to provide equitable access to journalists in both developed and developing regions, including those with and without advanced technologies and other such resources, we must continue to take our embargo policies very seriously. Please be assured that I will not hesitate to enforce our embargo policies in the future.

I hope that you'll agree this is an amicable resolution.

Thank you again for your call. Kind regards, Ginger Pinholster