Reflections From a Fish Wrap


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
February 21, 2008

Anyone anticipating some form of mea culpa from the New York Times for its recent coverage of methylmercury in sushi tuna finally got one. Sort of. What eventually came forth was neither a contraction nor an admission of inaccurate or misleading reporting from the editorial board, as the National Fisheries Institute had sought. But the words of Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt, while buried in last Sunday's opinion section, were indeed fit for print.

In his Feb. 17 column, "The Doctors Are In. The Jury is Out," Hoyt scrutinized the newspaper's journalistic principles on three recent articles concerning human health. On two occasions - in articles about the painful yet curious disorder fibromyalgia and the controversial relationship between vaccine use and rising autism rates in newborns - the writers and editors were fair and balanced in their coverage, Hoyt determined. When such widely disparate views exist on any issue, meticulous fact-finding and fair presentation of those facts are critical to any news outlet's credibility.

But the third story in question, "High Mercury Levels Are Found in Tuna Sushi," fell short of the Times' lofty standards, Hoyt wrote. In the Jan. 23 article, Marion Burros reported that several New York City restaurants and retailers were selling sushi-grade tuna containing levels of methylmercury that exceeded the federal government's action level, laboratory tests showed. Not a single voice in the story questioned any of the findings, so one could assume that none was ever sought. A Times editor said NFI's criticism of its reporting was "groundless."

Hoyt, who's essentially the ombudsman of the nation's most acclaimed fish wrap, concluded that the news package was "less balanced than it should have been, given the state of existing research." What's more, a science editor at the newspaper told Hoyt, "I should have raised more questions about the general presentation."

There are many researchers who've studied seafood consumption and concluded that its myriad healthful benefits far outweigh any risks. Their studies are relatively easy to find and they should not be overlooked, even when deadlines must be met.

Thank you,
James Wright
Assistant Editor
SeaFood Business

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