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Leaking moon water is all Twitter's fault

David Gregory | 10:08 UK time, Thursday, 24 September 2009

moon, water not shownThere's water on the moon. As reported by The Times, us, io9 and The Mail amongst others.

But you might be wondering why it's the The Times' Delhi Reporter who got the scoop and not their Science Correspondent? And why the Times posted this story last night and other organisations (including the BBC) seem to have been taken by surprise and didn't have anything online till this morning?

Well in reality most science journalists have known about this story for a few days now. But the story had been embargoed by Science, the journal publishing the research. So anyone publishing the story ahead of time would be punished. If all went to plan this research would suddenly emerge via a big Nasa press conference. Every news outlet around the world would report this amazing new discovery at the same time.

In fact the last few days have been a behind-the-scenes battle between established media and the internet. With journalists from the mass media knowing all about the story and being unable to say anything. While bloggers and twitterers do everything they can to find out what is going on. In fact as Birmingham science journalist David Whitehouse explained to me you can blame most of this on Twitter;

Space stories in particular seem to be prone to this. You have a very active blogosphere and Twitter has made it even worse. It's fabulous for sharing gossip but it's also made life hell for this sort of thing.

Here's what happened. On Monday Science sends a tip-sheet out to some 2000 journalists alerting them to the moon water story and telling them it will all be announced at a big Nasa press conference on Thursday.

Nasa logoNasa then sends out another embargoed announcement with a "cast list" of scientists attending the press conference. And once the blogosphere got hold of that it doesn't take long to work out what the scientist have been researching and what the big announcement is.

So now you have thousands of science journalists who know what's going on but can't say anything and thousands of bloggers who don't know what's going on but want to find out.

Then the other parts of the mainstream media start to report the rumours about moon water.

Which is how the story finally emerges in the mainstream press in India, where interest is high because India's Chandrayaan probe is partly responsible for this data. This is then picked up by the Times' Delhi correspondent and makes the top of their website as an exclusive.

Eventually the journal Science sees the cat is out of the bag, drop the embargo at 22.57 our time last night and all the British science journalists who've obeyed the embargo wake up to find they've missed one of the biggest days for the moon since we walked on it.

Even those imposing embargoes find they can sometimes cause trouble. Press Office for the University of Warwick Peter Dunn told me;

If you embargo something for seven am then Today love you but the Ten hate you. Embargoing for American time annoys the Brits and visa versa.

Embargoes do have their uses and sometimes ignoring them can have consequences. I know of one university official who received death threats because of an embargo breaking story.

But in these days of a global, 24-hour news media the process appears to be broken. You can't shut up bloggers and you can't shut down Twitter. The only thing that can go is the embargo system itself.

Speaking of Twitter if you can't beat them, join them. Follow me here, David Whitehouse here and Peter Dunn here.


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  • 1. At 00:50am on 25 Sep 2009, Doctuer_Eiffel wrote:

    Great build a great big swimming pool up there and send all the middle class up there and pull the plug.

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  • 2. At 02:34am on 25 Sep 2009, labellagorda wrote:

    I think mainstream journalists should stop blaming twitter for this fiasco. I am a journalist myself and have been a PR professional earlier. Embargoes are tricky and should be used very carefully.

    If you are sending out a statement to 2000 journalists, I think it is ridiculous to believe that the news will not be leaked out! Especially in a world where information transmission and exchange has become as quick and efficient as breathing, as you correctly pointed out, the embargo system is what needs to be done away with.

    However, blaming twitter and blogs for the leak is wrong as it was one of those 2000 privileged journalists, or maybe even a NASA representative who might have tweeted about this top secret news.

    As far as the nature of the fiasco goes, it is purely a PR disaster as anyone who has ever been in PR knows that if the news has substance and is really big, embargoes are unnecessary! Rather creating suitable hype and suspense would have worked much better in building anticipation of somehting big and exciting!

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  • 3. At 04:40am on 25 Sep 2009, sundeep_sharma wrote:

    And i thought at least the Western Media is FREE :). This also leads to the confirming few of the theories that most of the media is SYNCHRONIZED i.e. you would find almost same views same news on most of the media and that too with words/ thoughts that are predetermined by the controling authorities?

    We can use a new word EMBARGO in place of CONTROL.

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  • 4. At 05:05am on 25 Sep 2009, scientificactivist wrote:

    So, how exactly do the bloggers play into this again? A mainstream journalist broke the embargo, so blaming this on Twitter or the blogosphere is asinine. Few people know this, but many science bloggers also have access to embargoed stories, and they regularly uphold their end of the deal, unlike the particular journalist who broke the moon water embargo.

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  • 5. At 3:37pm on 27 Sep 2009, zbvhs01 wrote:

    Doctuer_Eiffel says send the middle class to the Moon. That would leave two classes: the rich and the poor. The rich would live in castles and the poor would live in the mud outside. Back to ther USSR! As for the news embargo: There's always someone who considers himself more equal (like the pigs in Orwell's Animal Farm).

    Does God exist? I don't know, I believe so. Science is only as good as what it's able to discover. Virgil H. Soule

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  • 6. At 12:33pm on 13 Jan 2010, Sige wrote:

    So what can be done to curb Twitter? Do we want to do anything at all? It seems that Twitter can have real uses but at the same time it's like a wild beast that's out of control. If we have platforms like Twitter it doesn't seem like there's any point in having regulations at all for the way that media treat the news. Sige

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