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Feb. 2, 2021, 8:30 a.m.

Journalists are grappling with their relationships to big tech companies. It’s time for academics to do the same.

We’ve debated “access journalism.” Next up: “Access scholarship.”

A small and seemingly niche Twitter conversation happened last weekend that shows how much further we have to go in creating good technology journalism and research.

I won’t belabor the details or call anyone out — it’s a messy mix of interpersonal dynamics, fragmented exchanges, and misinterpretations familiar to anyone who’s tried to have a timely and nuanced Twitter conversation — but the upshot is that there was a conversation among leading technology researchers and journalists about the ethics of agreeing to accept embargoed information from technology companies.

In this case, discussion focused on who had early access to the first set of decisions handed down by Facebook’s Oversight Board last week, how the Board gives such access, and what “access scholarship” — akin to “access journalism” — means for larger conversations about how to hold technology companies publicly accountable.

Much is still unclear. For example, as of this writing, we don’t know how many people got the embargoed information, how many people actually read it before its public release, how many of those people identify as journalists versus academics, or how Facebook or the board decide to offer such embargoes.

Offering reporters information on the condition that they do not disclose it before a stated date is common journalism practice. Journalists may readily agree to such arrangements for a number of reasons. It gives them time to digest, analyze, and write about information before it breaks, creating stronger and more thoughtful stories for readers. Such embargoes can curb the power that ill-informed, reactionary “hot takes” have to skew debates, misstate details, and reward the loudest voices. Companies have good reasons to share information in advance with a small set of trusted reporters who can write stories that strengthen public debate.

But this ideal is open to several legitimate criticisms. Embargoes are a PR technique companies can use to drive coverage and foreground storylines in a story’s critical first few hours, and not every reporter has the time or professional sophistication to see such embargoes as attempts at manipulation. Depending on the terms of the embargo, the reporter may be barred from discussing the information with sources who could shed light on the company’s strategy and push back against the spin. Journalists can be left at the mercy of the embargo’s demand for secrecy, they might be forced to rely on their past reporting for insight, or they might have to cultivate for themselves a set of sources who they trust to help them interpret the embargoed information, and stay quiet about it.

Companies also generally do not offer embargoed information to every reporter on a beat. For understandable reasons, they often prefer to make such deals with a small set of elite journalists who they know and trust, whose coverage will be influential, or who they are trying to cultivate for long-term relationships.

Principled and experienced journalists can see through these dynamics and navigate these embargoes with professionalism that results in stronger stories and better informed audiences. Embargoes are not universally bad or sinister or manipulative. They can be positive and valuable techniques, especially in media systems that move too fast for slow and nuanced analysis, and need to anticipate what might be newsworthy before events unfold.

Journalists and sources alike strategically cultivate such relationships. Companies want reporters who can cover their stories and at least consider driving their narratives; and reporters want companies who share information, reward them with access, and signal to editors and competitors alike that they are a beat’s key, influential journalists.

So what’s distinct about this case and why does it matter?

As this weekend’s Twitter exchanges showed, the difficulty comes when academics accept such embargoed information. We might call this “access scholarship,” in which companies cultivate relationships with a small set of academics who receive information in advance and are trusted not to disclose information until an agreed date.

In some ways, the issues are the same as they are for journalists. Such access can produce better scholarship than “hot takes.” Academics who receive such information are not necessarily “captured” and can still analyze and write with integrity. Companies have an interest in offering embargoed information to academics they trust, scholars they want to cultivate relationships with, and influential researchers with elite credentials, coveted reputations, or large social media followings. And this can all be accomplished without signing an NDA (often frowned upon by journalists and academics alike) because the contract is a tacit, social one that rests upon mutual interests.

Just as journalistic embargoes aren’t universally bad or unprofessional, academic embargoes might not be either. But conversations about the ethics of “access scholarship” are far less mature than debates about “access journalism.” (Though such journalism still dominates cultures of political reporting, it at least has a name and prominent critics.)

To ground a better conversation about “access scholarship” and move toward better technology coverage, we might ask:

Which academics receive such access from technology companies, and why them? Are they primarily from elite universities, scholars who are regularly vocal on issues, or celebrity academics adept at cultivating large social media followings and plum columns in high-visibility news outlets? We know that technology companies have a history of favoring elite institutions in their hiring — favoritism that reproduces racial and gender inequalities — so it’s worth questioning whether they also prefer elite scholarly sources for their embargoes.

Which academics disclose that they were offered, accepted, and used embargoed information in their analyses? Some researchers might readily reveal that their analyses are based on agreements with technology companies. Others might resist revealing such relationships for fear of sparking charges of bias. To be clear, there’s rarely a clear relationship between access and bias. Social influence is usually subtle and it is completely possible for journalists and academics alike to produce strong critical work even when given access. But if an academic doesn’t disclose such agreements, it can create the perception that there’s something to hide, and it contradicts the norms that many academic disciplines have about scholars situating themselves in relation to their fields and objects of study.

How do different academic fields and disciplines understand embargoes? Legal scholars may see such embargoes as a standard technique that has no bearing on their analyses and thus requires no disclosure. Scholars from more humanistic and anthropological fields may see embargoes as essential parts of their analysis that demand self-reflexive disclosure and discussion. Others may see such embargoes as akin to “data access,” with contractual terms of disclosure that stand outside academic discourse.

Some scholars, especially those working within journalism schools, may see themselves as reporters when they are not writing for peer-reviewed academic publications, so they may import the norms of journalistic embargoes and see no research ethics issues at all. This case lays bare just how diverse scholarship is, how different fields follow different norms, and how lines between researcher, reporter, and public intellectual are increasingly blurry in an age when academics are expected to produce scholarship with public impact.

How does context influence when academics should accept or refuse embargoed information? One of the issues at the core of last weekend’s conversation was a divide between seeing embargoed information as a technique for improving or co-opting critical scholarship.

One camp says that scholars should accept embargoed information because, especially in an age when too many pundits write about issues they don’t understand deeply, such access ensures that scholarly analyses are both well-informed and timely. Embargoes mean that audiences don’t have to wait for researchers to craft real-time or post hoc analyses, the way, for instance, reporters and scholars alike scramble to read, analyze, and publicly comment on Supreme Court decisions handed down with little notice. It means that scholars have at least a little time to reflect on the company’s information and offer a thoughtful analysis.

But the analogy to Supreme Court decisions highlights a key distinction advanced by the other camp. While Supreme Court decisions are public documents that everyone has to pore over quickly, Facebook Oversight Board decisions are products of a private company. When scholars accept the terms of embargoes, they immediately join an elite, non-public tier of researchers who the company sees as worthy of advanced access.

This, the co-opting camp argues, is fundamentally antithetical to critical scholarship not because they question the professional ethics of individual researchers — good scholarship can come from embargoed information — but because the mere fact of participating in the embargo lends legitimacy to a corporate-run system of information disclosure. In an age when private technology companies have such phenomenal power to shape public life, researchers who agree to embargoes actually harm the general goal of forcing firms to be more accountable. Embargo cultures make it harder for a diverse set of researchers and journalists to exercise public oversight over private power. Embargoes are untenable because they represent exactly the kind of power that public accountability should check.

What distinguishes a reporter from a researcher, and why does that difference matter? While some of the participants in last weekend’s debate argued that embargoes are standard journalism, others questioned whether embargoes should be used at all and asked whether they carry special obligations or expectations for academics.

Ideally, embargoes deepen analyses for journalists and researchers alike, but there’s also tacit acknowledgement that embargoes help journalists scoop competitors and establish some reporters as central members of a beat. Should academics be motivated by such concerns? Does “access scholarship” feed academic hierarchies and increasingly frenetic publishing timelines in which the mainstream press regularly quotes some scholars over others, some academics can easily point to evidence of the “public impact” that hiring, tenure and promotion committees crave, and some researchers have the jumpstarts needed to scoop their colleagues? Knowing that thoughtful and timely analysis of current events is different from — and sometimes complementary to — long-haul scholarship, it seems important that we ask how “access scholarship” fits within a broader landscape of intellectual inquiry with different rhythms, contributions, and standards.

Is it better to accept embargoed information, trusting that the detail and timeliness it brings will enrich the critical analysis that helps us hold companies accountable? Or is it better to reject embargo offers because private access for a select few means tacitly accepting that access is something for companies to selectively give, not something for the public to universally demand?

How you answer these questions reveals your target and theory of change. If you think embargoes are okay, then you might see a particular initiative as your target of change and you might think that change happens through thoughtful and timely critique of the company’s different moves. If you reject embargoes, you might see the system of information disclosure and accountability as your focus and you might see change coming from a principled refusal to participate in any company-led process.

It is not hard to imagine interventions into access scholarship that reinvent embargoes. What if there were a public list of which academics received embargoed information, and how that information figured into their writing? What if there were a strong cross-disciplinary norm that all writing had to disclose whether it relied on embargoed information? What if academics regularly revealed that they had been offered but refused embargoed information, and explained why? What if companies agreed that they would only give embargoed information to a small, public, rotating set of academics who had agreed to publicly stated principles around how to participate in embargo agreements? I’m sure there are more creative interventions to make in this space.

Academics haven’t yet grappled deeply with our relationships to technology behemoths. Often left unspoken is just how much we differ in our ethical frameworks, disciplinary norms, objects of concern, timelines of impact, and theories of change. As technology industries continue to both powerful and secretive, journalists and academics alike need to become much smarter, faster, about the conditions under which we report and research. There’s a chance to develop new forms of technology reporting and scholarship that move away from elite access and incremental critique and toward public accountability and radical institutional change. We need to be open about our differences and cognizant of our choices.

Mike Ananny is an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, where he researches the ethics of journalism and communication technologies.

POSTED     Feb. 2, 2021, 8:30 a.m.
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