NBC Finds The Devil Is In The Details

This week NBC Nightly News is finding that details matter.

When journalists use vernacular where scientific specificity is called for or unresearched statistics they once heard in place of the most up to date information, they wander down a path where accusations of sloppiness and laziness mix with questions about ethics and integrity.

If you believe what you see on NCB Nightly News this week you might think all the fish in the ocean will be gone by 2048 and that the UN says 28% of all fish stocks are “depleted.” Both of these statistics are demonstrably erroneous and, in case they didn’t know before, NFI is letting them know that now.

Please find below two letters. The first is to Lesert Holt’s executive producer and the second is to Brian William’s executive producer. Herein we lay out the problems with NBC’s most recent reporting. The real disappointment is that the stories themselves have actually been pretty good-pretty balanced, pretty fair and pretty well put together but major errors like the ones detailed in these letters marginalize the reporting and allow its real focus to be called into question.

Are these just sloppy errors found in otherwise decent work or are they evidence of attempts to exaggerate for the sake of agenda or ratings– a proverbial sexing up of the dossier perhaps?

April 20, 2009

Patrick Burkey

Executive Producer

NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt

30 Rockefeller Plz
New York, NY 10112

VIA Email

Dear Mr. Burkey,

I am writing to draw your attention to an error present in the Sunday April 19th edition of NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt.

As part of Mr. Holt’s introduction to Anne Thompson’s package he quotes a statistic that suggests “the world’s major fisheries could collapse by 2048.” A minimum of research would have revealed that this statistic is inaccurate and has been debunked by myriad scientists.

In fact, further investigation would have revealed that the very scientist who authored the original paper that made that postulation has been working on a new study, set for publication this summer that will stand in contrast to such hyperbole.

The claim, first made in a 2006 article published in Science magazine, was authored by marine biologist Boris Worm. Please find below independent professional criticism of the statistic, that Worm himself no longer promotes, from academia, government and even conservationists:

  • Ray Hilborn, professor in the School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences at the University of Washington calls the statistic an example of “the faith based fisheries movement” which “threatens the very heart of the scientific process,” “fallacious and inappropriate to appear in a scientific journal,” and “just mind boggling stupid.”

  • Scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Steven Murawski, Director of Scientific Programs and Chief Science Advisor; Richard Methot with the Office of Science and Technology; and Galen Tromble, Chief of Domestic Fisheries Division with the Office of Sustainable Fisheries – call the statistic’s conclusion “a meaningless projection [that] does not incorporate a large number of complex factors,” as well as “inaccurate and overly pessimistic.”

  • Mike Beck, Senior Scientist of Marine Initiatives with the Nature Conservancy, writes, “the prediction of global fisheries collapse by 2048… was derived from a simplistic extrapolation that would get you an “F” in high school statistics” in the January 2007 edition of the Science Chronicles.

The National Fisheries Institute spoke with Ms. Thompson as she prepared for this report and were pleased to serve as a resource. We were disappointed to see NBC News lean on exaggeration in the introduction to a science-based report. While the statistic cited by Mr. Holt is shocking and goes a long way to creating an air of urgency in illustrating the issue, it is also outdated and inaccurate and does not have a place in responsible journalism.

Not unlike the headline in a newspaper, the introduction in a broadcast sets the tone for what is about to follow. online version of this story.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Gavin Gibbons

National Fisheries Institute


April 21, 2008

Bob Epstein

Executive Producer, NBCNightly News with Brian Williams

30 Rockefeller Plz
New York, NY 10112

VIA Email

Dear Mr. Epstein,

I am writing with regard to a story that aired last night on NBC Nightly News. Chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson produced a package as part of the “Sea Change” series and reported that according to the United Nations 28% of fish stocks are “depleted”-this graphic appears 16 second into her package and the statistic is incorrect.

The very latest United Nations report on The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture is very specific about the current status of fisheries resources. Likewise the terms it uses to describe the stocks are specific scientific characterizations and are not open to interpretation.

On page 30 of the UN’s report (page 48 of 196 in the PDF) the FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department writes, “The other 28 percent were overexploited (19 percent), depleted (8 percent) or recovering from depletion (1 percent)…”

This report, and the science behind it, is very specific when it says 8 percent of the assessed stocks were found to be “depleted.” The terms found in this and other stock assessments are terms of science not art and should be reported as such. There is a significant difference between 28 percent and 8 percent.

We ask that you remove this report from your website until the erroneous graphic is changed and issue an on air correction.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.


Gavin Gibbons

National Fisheries Institute

cc: Brian Williams, Managing Editor NBC Nightly News