Taking The Time To Get The Story Right

When I think if Time magazine, or even Time.com for that matter, I dont think of agenda driven hacks or sloppy sensationalists trying to out do the competition. I think of solid journalists who, for the most part, let their work speak for itself. For cryin out loud, this is the publication that names the Person of the Year. Youll probably sense my disappointment in the following letter although it may be masked by a dash of snarkieness brought on by frustration. Have a look:

February 23, 2010

Daniel Eisenberg

News Executive Editor


VIA Email

Dear Mr. Eisenberg,

I am writing to draw your attention to several issues regarding a failure of basic journalistic standards as they relate to Time.coms article on the Top 10 Most Dangerous Foods.

The issues begin with generous editorial hyperbole and a lack of proper sourcing and end with out right inaccuracy. It is a great concern of ours that such a respected news outlet would allow for such substandard reporting.

For starters the list of Dangerous Foods subtitled eat at your own risk lists tuna at number seven under the header Tuna Terrors. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics states clearly that reporters and editors should make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. Even Time.coms own reporting does not suggest there is an imminent risk of anything close to terror associated with tuna. This type of tabloid exaggeration is beneath Time.com and should have been recognized by editors as a lazy attempt at alliteration that was wholly inaccurate.

The initial impression left by the compilation Time.com published is that the list is somehow part of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy statement on hotdogs when there is scarcely even a tangential tie to the AAP story.

Further more the text of Alyssa Fetinis write-up on tuna is rife with errors. In the very first paragraph she reports that the U.S. government advisory warned consumers against eating too much of the fish out of concern that the high mercury levels could damage the nervous system and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. This is absolutely false.

The FDA and EPA jointly advised not consumers broadly but a very specific sensitive subpopulation made up of women who might become pregnant, women who are pregnant, nursing mothers and young children to avoid 4 rarely eaten fish Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel and Tilefish. The very same advisory states that women and young children should eat up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish including as much as 12 ounces of light tuna and up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.

In the very next sentence Fetini cites an incriminating 2008 New York Times investigation: about mercury in tuna. The lack of research done into this particular part of the repot is confounding on a number of levels. First, the very New York Times report she refers to has been publicly criticized for its journalistic and scientific failures by not only Slate.com and The Center for Independent Media but the Times own ombudsman, who wrote that the original article missed and was less balanced than it should have been, given the state of existing research.

Whats more Time.com itself published an article the day after the New York Times report titled The Danger of Not Eating Tuna, in which a noted expert is quoted as saying overall, the dangers of not eating fish [including tuna] outweigh the small possible dangers from mercury. How is it that Time.com goes from publishing a thorough well-researched interview with a renowned Harvard cardiologist who says, I really think we are experimenting with people’s lives when we give recommendations or write stories or reports that make people eat less fish, to calling tuna a terror?

Unfortunately the issues do not stop there. In the final sentence of the report that calls tuna a terror readers are told that theres a danger from Scombroid. How much of a danger and what that entails is never reported. For starters the CDC notes that for this illness, the majority of patients have mild symptoms that resolve within a few hours and that treatment is generally unnecessary. Likewise, the latest available CDC statistics on Scombroid toxin show that a little more than a hundred Americans are sickened by it annually and thats from all sources, not just tuna. While literally thousands fall ill from Salmonella, commonly found in things like beef, poultry and vegetables. A Terror?

We ask that you immediately remove this portion of your Top 10 Most Dangerous Foods report and review it with your editorial standards in mind.

Thank you for your attention to this issue.

Gavin Gibbons

National Fisheries Institute

cc Sora Song, Time.com Health & Medicine Editor

Richard Stengel, Time Magazine Managing Editor