Health Advice and Journalistic Responsibility

After a few days of blog and twitter banter that saw a hyper-defensive Michael Hawthorne refusing to acknowledge and or correct his now comically slanted reporting, on the FDA’s new advice to pregnant women, we decided that perhaps a round of real editorial oversight was in order.

June 13, 2014

Jane Hirt

Managing Editor

Chicago Tribune

VIA Email

Dear Ms. Hirt,

This week, in announcing new draft advice on seafood consumption for American moms, the FDAs top medical expert told reporters that scientific research developed over the past decade strongly demonstrates the health benefits that accrue from the consumption of fish far outweigh any risk. Asked specifically for the main takeaway from FDA, he said: The most important message here is to consume more fish.

Your reporter, Michael Hawthorne, took part in that press conference and here is how he described it to readers in his lead:

Eating seafood generally is considered good for you, but the catch is some kinds of fish tend to be contaminated with high levels of brain-damaging mercury.

Meanwhile, many of the most popular seafood choices for Americans provide relatively low amounts of the fatty acids that stimulate brain development and help prevent heart disease.

That sort of ulterior, wink-and-nudge insinuation that eating fish is harmful has been a hallmark of Hawthornes slanted reporting on this issue for many years now. But whats especially irresponsible about this latest piece is that it comes as the FDA is trying to overcome a decades worth of alarmist rhetoric from fringe activists and fund-raising eco-groups that has caused fish consumption among pregnant and breastfeeding women to drop to just 20 percent of what FDA says it should be.

Another way of putting it is that when consumers, and moms in particular, are presented with inaccurate emphasis on brain damage and neurotoxin, they often curtail or eliminate seafood from their familys diet. The resultaccording to some of the hundreds of studies FDA and other national and international health organizations have relied on to assess the net effects of seafood consumptionis lower overall IQ scores for children (particularly in verbal IQ), and sharply increased cardiovascular risk for adults, leading to preventable heart attacks and strokes.

That makes seafood unique among all the various nutritional targets of activist attacks. Stop drinking soda pop or eating processed snacks and nothing bad will happen to you. But if you stop eating fish, children and adults alike face discernibly poorer health outcomes.

Thats why the standard for balanced, accurate, and responsible reporting ought to be at its very highest on public health stories of this kind. Yet Hawthorne persists in distorting the facts, hyping theoretical risks, slanting his sourcing, and obscuring crucial information from readers. Let me present some specifics:

— He declares in the story that Studies have shown that exposure to mercury in the womb, mostly from fish eaten by women, can irreversibly damage the brain before a child is born, causing subtle delays in walking and talking as well as decreased attention span and memory. No such studies are cited, nor is the 250+ page, peer-reviewed scientific report that underpins the new FDA advice, which explicitly says, Beneficial net effects were consistently associated with consumption during pregnancy that exceeded to some extent 12 ounces or two servings of fish per week and On a population basis, average neurodevelopment in this country is estimated to benefit by nearly 0.7 of an IQ point (95% C.I. of 0.39 1.37 IQ points) from maternal consumption of commercial fish.

— In a story published nearly six years ago, Hawthorne wrote, studies have shown that exposure to mercury in the womb, mostly from fish eaten by mothers, can irreversibly damage the brain before birth, causing subtle delays in walking and talking as well as decreased attention span and memory. How did that apparent self-plagiarism get past editors and how do you justify it in light of the voluminous, countervailing research since then?

— One of Hawthornes marque sources for this latest piece was the fundraising group, Environmental Defense Fund, which has no medical or nutritional expertise whatsoever. Actual medical groups that urge increased fish consumption like the American Heart Association, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) were withheld from readers. In fact, ACOG this week alerted its members to the new advice, saying Since the FDA and the EPA issued their last joint advisory in 2004, further information has become available that suggests that consumption of low-mercury seafood can be particularly beneficial during pregnancy, with benefits including improved neurodevelopmental outcomes. FDA and EPA report that pregnant women currently consume below this level.

— Hawthorne made zero mention of the far-ranging recent scientific research that was the primary basis for FDAs updated guidance. When we pressed him on this point, he cited a single outlier study.

— One of the recent studies that Hawthorne obscures from readers, done by the federal government, showed that some 84,000 cardiac-related deaths could be prevented each year with proper servings of fish in the diet.

— Another long-term NIH study showed that children whose moms cut back on seafood during pregnancy had significantly lower developmental and IQ outcomes. Dont readers deserve to know those critical facts in a story that is purportedly about weighing risks and benefits?

As the leading seafood association, we would have been glad to point all this out to Hawthorne prior to publication but he never reached out. When we tried to cite some of it to him after the story ran, he replied that we were reflexively attacking, DC-style.

In light of these demonstrable editorial concerns we would appreciate a review of Mr. Hawthornes work and any reaction you might be able to offer.


Gavin Gibbons

Vice President, Communications

National Fisheries Institute


Margaret Holt

Kaarin Tisue