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

We heard back from the Chicago Tribune last night. Take a look at what they wrote:

Mr. Gibbons:

Michael Hawthorne and I have gone over your letter at length and reviewed the concerns you raised. I find nothing that merits a correction. I appreciate that, as a spokesman for the Fisheries Institute, you have a particular interest in elements of the issue that may have been reported and considered but not chosen for inclusion in the story. In that regard, may I suggest that you consider submitting a letter to the Voice of the People for consideration of your views.

The e-mail for that is CTC-TribLetter@tribune.com. I’m cc’ing my colleague, Dodie Hofstetter, who edits the letters for publication, so that she is aware of my reply.


Margaret Holt

Standards Editor

Needless to say the ole’ let’s just agree-to-disagree and sweep these egregious violations of journalism standards under the rug is not going to wash. So, here’s the letter we sent back this morning:

September 4, 2008

Margaret Holt

Chicago Tribune Standards Editor

VIA Email

Dear Ms. Holt,

Thank you for your response to my letter regarding breaches in journalism standards contained in the August 30, 2008 article by Michael Hawthorne, titled “Women Living in Mercury’s Shadow.”

As you may have noted, the intention of my original letter was to request a review by the Tribune’s Public Editor. In the absence of Mr. McNulty, are you filling that role or does the Tribune no longer employ a Public Editor?

Furthermore, I am frankly surprised that as the Standards Editor you have no concerns about the key facts that Mr. Hawthorne was aware of but were “not chosen for inclusion in the story.”

As you are no doubt aware, the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics states in its section on “accountability” that, “Journalists should: Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.” With this tenet in mind I request further explanation of the issues I raised in my original letter.

The elements that Mr. Hawthorne chose not to include in his story serve to distort the reporting. Among them:

  • The study he cites contains data that mixes both commercially caught fish and sport-caught fish but only refers to commercially caught fish throughout his reporting.

  • The key point of the study he reviewed was that “women were eating the same amount of seafood.” Mr. Hawthorne was aware of non-industry funded studies from the same time period that show women were not eating the same amount of seafood and he did not report on this differing scientific opinion.
  • He writes, “studies have found that regular consumption of mercury-contaminated fish can offset… benefits.” Again, Mr. Hawthorne was aware of non-industry funded studies that show a scientific consensus of significant net benefits from fish consumption on brain development and heart health. This too goes unmentioned.
  • Mr. Hawthorne makes the point that species like grouper, orange roughy, Chilean sea bass and marlin contain more mercury than albacore. However he does not let readers know that the FDA’s own data shows unequivocally that all of those species have mercury levels well below the FDA/EPA guidelines, in fact all contain half or less of the federal limit. We made him well aware of this fact before he published his story.
  • He 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,” which is false. The day before his story was printed, NFI provided Mr. Hawthorne with a study funded by The National Institutes of Health and Harvard Medical School as evidence of advisory consequences. How is it that after your paper was made aware that the research we provided Mr. Hawthorne was not industry financed, you still maintain that type of blatant mischaracterization falls within Tribune standards?

I appreciate your suggestion that I submit a letter to the Voice of the People and I will consider doing so. In the meantime, I request a further review of Mr. Hawthorne’s work and an explanation of how it meets Tribune standards.

Thank you for your continued consideration.

Gavin Gibbons

National Fisheries Institute

cc: Gerould Kern, Editor

Chicago Tribune

Jane Hirt, Managing Editor

Chicago Tribune

Andy Schotz, Society of Professional Journalists

Ethics Committee Chair