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Salacious, Scandalous and Sensational vs. Scientific; why man-bites-dog isn’t always worth reporting

Scientific studies that are outliers or in the end don’t reach a causal conclusion or can’t really be practically applied but at least appear to buck current knowledge are often fodder for headlines. When in reality they shouldn’t be.

September 5, 3012

Peter Bohan

Editor

Reuters America News Service/Syndicate

3 Times Square

New York, NY 10036

USA

VIA EMAIL

Dear Mr. Bohan,

Last week, reporter Kerry Grens in her article, “Mercury, oils from fish at odds in heart health (08.30.12),” wrote about the publication of a research study out of Finland and Sweden.  Ms. Grens presents the findings as if they call into question the scientific consensus about the well-documented heart health benefits of eating fish despite trace amounts of mercury commonly found in fish.  The 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans unequivocally say “Moderate, consistent evidence shows that the health benefits from consuming a variety of seafood in the amounts recommended outweigh the health risks associated with methyl mercury, a heavy metal found in seafood in varying levels.” 

But the authors of the study themselves are careful to say that, only when data was modeled in such a way that mercury levels were very high and omega-3 levels were very low, was there a net negative effect on heart health.  “Because both S-PUFA and hair-Hg are associated with fish consumption, this is an unusual combination, at least in Western countries,” the authors say.  Ms. Grens report should have been promoted more as an examination of the theoretical possibility that the mercury and healthy omega-3 fatty acids found in fish might somehow be in conflict with each other at certain ratios not seen in the U.S., and not as a conclusion that mercury’s deleterious properties had somehow eclipsed the omega 3’s .

Many Reuter’s subscribers, including high profile news outlets, let Reuter’s editorial judgment stand in place of their own and did not research the origins and or the true conclusion of this study.

Raising the specter of potential risks in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence that prove eating a wide variety of fish is essential to optimal health, is a tried and true tactic of today’s media; hence the newsroom mantra, “if it bleeds, it leads.”

However, when it comes to advice about a nutritious food this isn’t just a harmless attention-grabbing tactic.  The World Health Organization recently urged communicators to not only “emphasize the benefits of fish consumption on reducing CHD” [mortality rates for heart disease] but speak to the “CHD mortality risks of not eating fish for the general adult population.”  Research from Harvard University concludes that 84,000 cardiac deaths per year could be avoided by eating a variety of seafood 2 – 3 times a week.  The authors of the very study Ms. Grens reported on say “Our model indicated that even a small change in fish consumption (ie, by increasing S-PUFA by 1%) would prevent 7% of MIs [heart attacks], despite a small increase in mercury exposure.”  Confusing people and thus steering them away from seafood has the potential to contribute to an increase in the incidence of heart disease, the number one cause of death in the U.S. 

This study does not change the overwhelming body of science that concludes the benefits outweigh the risks and it is irresponsible to suggest otherwise. Especially when Ms. Grens own report cites the researcher as saying the study, “can't tease out cause and effect.” The value of reporting on non-definitive studies should be considered beyond the curiosity effect that a man-bites-dog story generates.  After all, the health of the audiences is at stake. 

Sincerely,

Gavin Gibbons,

Director of Media Relations

cc         Brian Tracey

            U.S. Managing Editor

            Elaine Lies

            Editor

            Bob Tourtellotte

            Editor

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