Reporting On Tuna Study Fails Readers

Not a Health Study

When the LA Times and San Diego Union Tribune recently reported on a tuna study about contaminants in fish they both made a major mistake in their reporting… or, really, in what they didn’t report. Neither of their identical stories highlighted the fact that the research they were writing about was not nutrition research. The study was essentially an algebraic application – it did not study the health impact of eating tuna.

Statistical Gymnastics

The papers reported, almost breathlessly, about “toxins in tuna” and mused about “how safe it is to eat.” But didn’t mention that the research never looked at that.  It is not the type of study that would effectively formulate actual nutrition advice. Generally, researchers look at the health effects foods have on real people and use that information to formulate advice. That’s not what this study did… at all. In fact, one part of the study suggested it found “calculated meal recommendations” of between 787 meals and 3 meals per month. That’s not nutrition science that’s statistical gymnastics. It’s akin to saying motorists could prevent auto accidents by traveling between 5mph and 65mph. Beyond unhelpful, it’s almost nonsensical.

Blatant Lack of Perspective

What may be worse is the complete lack of perspective on the issue of contaminants, known as PCB’s, in the article. The absence of accurate, actionable reporting could mislead readers and drive them away from a healthy protein. Harvard University research finds seafood broadly makes up only 9% of the PCBs in the average American diet, while products like vegetables make up 20%. No doctor is commissioning studies to find out how we can encourage Americans to eat fewer vegetables. So why are the LA Times and San Diego Union Tribune not reporting on this important nuance? It’s a simple fact and when it’s not included it begs the question; why was it left out? Similarly, editorial questions should be raised when the second paragraph of a story notes that researchers were tracking concentrations of “toxins in tuna” and “how safe it is to eat” but the author waits a full 447 words to reveal, “most of the tuna analyzed in the study would be considered safe.”

Hyperbole Rules the Day

Hyperbole, bordering on click-bait, apparently rules the day. It would appear that a statistical evaluation of contaminants found in fish that ultimately didn’t cause any sort of acute illness among consumers doesn’t attract readers like a headline that screams, “How safe is your tuna?”

L.A. Times adds Sensationalism to Tuna Study Reporting

That the author failed to properly investigate this matter is disappointing, but she’s not alone in her malfeasance. The piece originally appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune, with a far more innocuous title- “Toxin levels in tuna depend on where it’s caught.”  That the Los Angeles Times saw fit to publish this piece is bad enough. That they exercised their editorial discretion to make it more hyperbolic and sensational is unacceptable.

Context free reporting like this is not without consequence. Despite extensive scientific literature on the importance of incorporating seafood into a healthy diet, only 1 in 10 Americans are consuming enough seafood, which contributes to a public health crisis. Another Harvard study found that insufficient seafood consumption contributed to 84,000 preventable deaths. Irresponsible, misleading reports bearing sensationalist headlines like this only discourage regular seafood consumption, to our great national detriment.