When is an embargoed media event, not an embargoed media event? Practically speaking in the era of smart-phones and mobile communication that would appear to be any and all of them. The much-anticipated meeting of the minds between Stephen Colbert and N.Y. Cardinal Timothy Dolan at Fordham University over the weekend had been subject to a media blackout. The event was intended as an exclusive experience for Fordham students. All the same, several journalists were in attendance with the understanding that they came as guests and not as professionals free to cover the event, including yours truly and some other America staff.
A journalist from another Catholic publication, which shall remain nameless but its rhymes with Blommonveal, was also on hand but was not explicitly part of the journalists invited under the stricture of the blackout.
It should not have come as a surprise to anyone attending that the 3,000 or so students on hand for the event did not respect the media blackout. Hundreds were “live-tweeting” the best comments from Colbert, Cardinal Dolan and our own Jim Martin from the moment the microphones—and twitter accounts—went live. The not-America editor did the same.
Two journalists, Laurie Goodstein from the N.Y. Times and Rachel Zoll from the Associated Press, decided that this live-tweeting constituted a violation of the embargo, thus liberating them from the restrictions they had accepted in exchange for access. Before the night was over they had both posted full accounts of the memorable evening.
The experience suggests a couple of ethical and practical quandaries that the new era of social media presents for journalists and communication professionals: does the use of social media by non-professionals constitute a breach of an embargo (a regular quid pro quo within journalism that allows reporters early access to people, reports, events on background or preemptively under conditions that usually mean merely delayed coverage, but in this event was intended to mean no coverage period); and is it practically possible to blackout a semi-public event at all given the nature of contemporary mobile communications?
If the essence of a break in an embargo, thus the greenlight for journalists to violate their own commitments to silence, is the fact of any information leakage at all, then this appears to be something of a no-brainer. The Fordham students and the other Catholic magazine editor were posting the best quotes from the event at #Dolbert and including snippets of personal reflection and color commentary. They were in effect communicating with the wider world and telling the story just as a journalist would. The #Dolbert tweets were being retweeted and circulated throughout the Internet. Goodstein and Zoll, then, have a point that the story was out there, so why shouldn’t they have the opportunity to report on it?
That said, it does smart a little to be a journalist who respected the embargo and thus missed the story. I have to wonder if the pros were overly eager for an excuse to declare the embargo null. True, the story was out there, but told by (almost entirely) nonprofessionals who had not made any commitments about keeping the story under wraps.
That may have been a preposterous expectation in the first place in the iPhone age; information wants to be free and this event demonstrates the futility of trying to contain it. This is likely an incident that journalism ethics classes and event planners will want to review more thoroughly. Perhaps they can trade tweets about it.
How well did twitter "cover" the event?