Errors and Bias Continue at Winston-Salem Journal

The Winston-Salem Journal continues to obscure
an open scientific discussion about eating fish and we are obliged, once again,
to set the record straight. In a story published on July 28, 2008 [Researcher Weathers Criticism over Fish
] reporter Richard Craver infers that “corporate profits” motivate NFI,
which includes credentialed nutrition staff, to selectively “target” the
findings in a study led by Dr. Floyd Chilton published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. This is false in several respects.

concern has focused on the irresponsible and alarmist coverage of Dr.
Chilton’s study, not his scientific analysis. Consistent with the American Dietetic
Association’s goal to provide a variety of perspectives on the health effects
of different fish, NFI strongly encourages all relevant scientists’ voices to
be heard. There are many experts
debating the merits of Dr. Chilton’s work – and NFI has urged only that an
inclusive, balanced, science-based discussion take place.

persistent problem occurs in public health reporting when journalists take
facts out of context and alarm the public.
That is exactly why the American Dietetic Association warns
consumers to be wary
of “simplistic conclusions drawn from a complex study”
as well as “dire warnings of danger from a single complex study.”

scores of news outlets irresponsibly hyped the comparison between tilapia and
fatty foods such as hamburger and bacon – while omitting the broader, accurate
context and ignoring the many voices in the scientific community that disagree.
Indeed, buried low in Craver’s story, Dr. Chilton takes issue with the misused comparison
as well: “When asked whether he regrets the hamburger and bacon reference in
the tilapia study, Chilton said that to the point it created confusion, I

part of his argument about NFI’s supposed profit motive Craver reports that,
“the fisheries institute is targeting the Wake study because of its potential
for affecting sales of tilapia, institute officials said.” But no official with or employee of NFI has
ever said any such thing to Craver and the assertion itself is false.

has long taken part in the public health discourse over nutrition and fish
consumption by promoting the scientific consensus of leading health
experts. Our rationale for doing so, as
is publicly stated and easily confirmed, is to help provide accurate and
reliable public health information to consumers. When the media gets nutrition advice about
fish wrong, as they often do, NFI has an obligation to speak up. The fact that Craver would begrudge us that
right and impugn our motives tells readers all they need to know about his
supposed objectivity.

are other specific journalistic flaws in the story:

Craver quotes NFI dietitian Jennifer
Wilmes saying: “‘In this letter (from the fisheries institute), we see
doctors from schools in England, Germany, Korea and Australia teaming up with
researchers from U.S. institutions, including Sanford School of Medicine, Penn
State and Harvard School of Public Health, to say, Wait a minute, what you are
reading in the press is misleading.'”
But his parenthesis about the origin of the letter is erroneous. That letter did not come from NFI. Rather, it was published by William S.
Harris, Senior Scientist and Director of the Metabolism and Nutrition Research
Center at Sanford University Medical School, co-signed by 15 other international
doctors, and posted independently.

It is worth noting that this is the
same Dr. Harris who authored the original rebuttal that appeared in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association
alongside Dr. Chilton’s research.
Another article reassuring consumers about fish like tilapia appeared on
July 16 at the Nutrition-Wise Web site of the Mayo Clinic. Craver continues to omit these specific
issues a variety of nutrition professionals have expressed with aspects of
Chilton’s work. We brought his attention
to those specifics in a letter on July 17.
In an article that purports to examine the debate about Dr. Chilton’s
work, how is it possible that those central, substantive facts continue to be
obscured from readers?

Craver states, “The trouble with the
institute’s position is that the Wake study doesn’t make that claim” –
referring to the comparison between hamburger, bacon and tilapia. But NFI’s position specifically refers to the
media coverage of Dr. Chilton’s study, not the findings themselves. As mentioned earlier in the article by Craver
himself, NFI precisely states: “The types of fats in popular seafood have
led to reports
that bacon, hamburgers and doughnuts are a better choice
than certain fish.”

the end, what we have here is one of the dirty little secrets of public health
journalism: That reporters looking to write a story designed to capture the
largest audience will purposely omit or ignore information that disputes the
research that their reporting spotlights.
That sort of bias makes a mockery of journalistic standards and poses a
continuing threat to public health.

has asked the newspaper for published corrections on their errors and an
explanation for how the slanted reporting continues to get past editors. We will continue to update the situation on
this space.