(Part II) Chicago Tribune Publishes Another Alarmist Mercury in Fish Story

On the first day this blog went live I wrote that we “hope to change the dialog that often accompanies stories about seafood. It’s no longer about whether we like or agree with a story. It’s about whether reporters and producers are following the basic journalistic tenants of fairness, balance, objectivity and above all, accuracy.”

Well, this weekend the Chicago Tribune failed as they have in the past with respect to a number of those tenets and now we’re giving them a chance to set the record straight. We have contacted the newspaper’s public editor and asked him to review the reporting that produced Saturday’s latest mercury scare story.

Here’s our letter:

September 2, 2008

Timothy J. McNulty

Chicago Tribune Public Editor

VIA Email

Dear Mr. McNulty,

I am writing to draw your attention to a number of breaches in journalism standards contained in the August 30, 2008 article by Michael Hawthorne, “Women Living in Mercury’s Shadow.”

Mr. Hawthorne begins his story by noting that the research report he reviewed analyzed mercury in women’s blood and found “vast differences based on where they live.” He fails to mention that the report he cites contains data that mixes both commercially caught fish and sport-caught fish.

The scientific report published in Environmental Health Perspectives states, “…recent information on “hot spots” for mercury in wildlife tissues could be associated with higher mercury concentrations for locally obtained fish…Although most fish consumed by the U.S. population is not locally obtained, it is postulated that analytical results showing geographic differences in the distribution of [blood mercury] could reflect higher mercury concentration in locally obtained fish within the NE states.”

In addition to omitting this fact Mr. Hawthorne likewise never addresses the fact that there are marked differences in the mercury levels of sport-caught fish and commercial fish. There is no mention that sport-caught fish were factored in to the report, leaving readers with the impression that he is writing solely on the dietary impact of commercial seafood.

When National Fisheries Institute (NFI) registered dietitian Jennifer Wilmes spoke to Mr. Hawthorne on August 29th, she brought this point to his attention several times, as it is potentially detrimental to public health to suggest eating a variety of commercial fish (as most Americans do) is risky.

Mr. Hawthorne expands his explanation of the data he reviewed writing, “Levels of mercury also dropped most dramatically among the women with the most exposure–a decline that occurred, the authors noted, even though those women were eating the same amount of seafood.” We made Mr. Hawthorne aware of non-industry funded studies from the same time period that show women were not eating the same amount of seafood and had decreased seafood consumption. We even provided him a copy of the Harvard University study titled “Decline in Fish Consumption Among Pregnant Women After a National Mercury Advisory.” He failed to include in his reporting that there is a differing scientific opinion with regard to the very subject he was writing about.

Throughout the article, Mr. Hawthorne gives lip service, at best, to the well-documented benefits of fish consumption. At one point suggesting that, “omega-3 fatty acids are thought to help prevent heart disease.” It is a disservice to readers to downplay the heart health properties of fish. The American Heart Association is unequivocal when it says, “Epidemiologic and clinical trials have shown that omega-3 fatty acids reduce [heart disease] incidence” and “We recommend eating fish (particularly fatty fish) at least two times a week.”

Mr. Hawthorne’s reporting further minimizes the healthful properties of fish when he writes, “studies have found that regular consumption of mercury-contaminated fish can offset those benefits.” Here he fails to inform readers that scientific consensus shows a significant net benefit of fish consumption on brain development and heart health. We sent Mr. Hawthorne links to three such independent studies found in The Journal of Pediatrics, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and The Lancet.

Later Mr. Hawthorne writes, “the advisory is silent about other commonly sold fish that contain even more mercury than albacore, including grouper, orange roughy, Chilean sea bass and marlin.” The FDA’s own data shows unequivocally that all of the species named by Mr. Hawthorne have mercury levels well below the FDA/EPA guidelines, in fact all contain about half or less of the federal limit. We explained to Mr. Hawthorne that albacore tuna was mentioned in the advisory not because it contains particularly high levels of mercury, but because of the volume of it that is consumed in this country. And we provided him with a letter from the FDA dated January 26, 2006 that explains this. Mr. Hawthorne completely disregarded these facts.

In concluding this article Mr. Hawthorne writes, “the seafood industry has financed research suggesting that mercury warnings are scaring women away from seafood. As a result, industry representatives contend, those women are depriving their children of important nutrients.” We provided Mr. Hawthorne with myriad independent, non-industry funded, studies that we base our conclusions on. It is inappropriate and inaccurate for Mr. Hawthorne to assume that the seafood industry’s suggestions are “as a result” of industry-financed research, when the research we provided him to illustrate our suggestions were in fact not industry-funded.

With the journalistic tenets of fairness, balance and objectivity in mind we ask that you review Mr. Hawthorne’s work.

Thank you for your consideration.

Gavin Gibbons

National Fisheries Institute

cc: Jane Hirt, Managing Editor

Chicago Tribune