USA Today Won't Take Back Claim Fish Poison Babies

     It’s no wonder businesspeople tend to distrust the media – especially when unsubstantiated alarmist statements are made and no recourse is offered.


     “As many as 600,000 babies may be born in the USA each year with irreversible brain damage because pregnant mothers ate mercury-contaminated fish, the Environmental Protection Agency says,” USA Today’s Larry Wheeler wrote.


     Sounds troublesome, right?


     This article in the October 29 issue of USA Today ignored the tenets of ethical journalism by advocating a position that mercury-contaminated fish were responsible for a half a million babies annually being born with brain damage. But the story didn’t end there.


     That claim and others in the article prompted the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) to react with an exchange of various responses, but the results were unsatisfactory, according to Jim McCarthy, a spokesman for NFI.

‘600,000 Babies’ Statement Not True


     When eating fish is linked to hurting babies, it is certain to get attention. But according to the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), the statement that 600,000 babies are born in the USA each year with irreversible brain damage is incorrect.


    “That is false – and in several respects,” John Connelly, president of NFI wrote in a November 1 letter to Gannett News Service Editor Val Ellicott. 


“First, the EPA has never made any such assertion. One official from EPA, Kathryn Mahaffey, extrapolated that figure at EPA’s Fish Forum conference in 2004. The agency itself subsequently disavowed connection with the assertion – and placed a disqualifying reference to it on their public website. What’s more, there is not a single documented case of any child in this country with mercury levels above RfD [Reference Dose] – let alone with resulting brain damage.”


     Despite the NFI’s efforts, USA Today was uncooperative and even issued an incorrect correction in its November 5 edition:


“In 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 410,000 newborns in the USA were born to mothers whose methyl mercury levels were higher than the maximum level the EPA considers safe. An Oct. 30 story cited a 2004 study that estimated the number at 600,000 newborns.”


     But USA Today was also wrong with that statement, according to Connelly:


“The figure you cite, that 410,000 infants are exposed to mercury above the EPA reference dose, is taken from a presentation delivered by one (1) EPA scientist, not the agency itself. In fact, here is what EPA had contributed as a slide in the beginning of that presentation: ‘The Findings and Conclusions in This Presentation Have Not Been Formally Disseminated by U.S. EPA and Should Not Be Construed to Represent Any Agency Determination or Policy.’ We are unaware of any change in EPA's position. Therefore, obviously, this is not an EPA estimate as you assert.”


     Click here to see the EPA slides. See slide #25 for the 410,000 figure – an assertion solely of Ms. Mahaffey. On slide #2, EPA itself officially disavows that assertion.

Straight off the left-wing NRDC Web site


     According to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, journalists are supposed to:


    Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant. Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.


     But Wheeler disregarded those tenets when he included background in his October 29 article.


      The article, which has recently popped up in other newspapers including the December 3 Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) Journal, has many similarities to the left-wing Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Web site on mercury-contaminated fish.


      “Physicians and public health officials acknowledge it is extremely difficult to ‘prove’ a direct link between eating a tuna steak and high blood mercury levels,” Wheeler wrote.


     However, both Wheeler’s article and the NRDC Web site cite the same expert, Jane Hightower, a San Francisco doctor. Hightower claimed a link exists between fish consumption and what she diagnosed as a disorder she calls “fish fog.”


     But as a November 3 letter from Connelly to Val Ellicott, editor of Gannett News Service, indicates – there is no published evidence of such a condition.


     “Medical and scientific researchers have, in fact, been studying the effects of mercury for decades,” Connelly wrote. “It should also be noted that there is no medical condition known as ‘fish fog.’ It is not a term used in the medical community and there is no documented evidence that anyone has such a condition.”

Reporter Gives Industry Less than 24 Hours to Respond to Initial Story


     Although the story didn’t run until October 29, Wheeler originally contacted NFI on September 17 and insisted on a response by 3 p.m. the next afternoon.


     “Our PR firm took contemporaneous notes when Wheeler first called on Monday, September 17th,” Mary Anne Hansan wrote in a letter to Gannett News Service Managing Editor Laura Rehrmann. “He said he was ‘handing my editor a copy of the piece at 5pm today.’ He went on to say he would fill the ‘hole’ in his story if we responded no later than 3pm on Tuesday, the 18th.”


     USA Today’s rush to have NFI to respond was peculiar – because they sat on the story for 40 days before finally publishing it October 29.

USA Today’s ‘Commitment to Accuracy?’


     Published in every issue of USA Today is a message on its editorial page pledging a “Commitment to Accuracy”: “To report corrections and clarifications, contact Reader Editor Brent Jones …”


     However, Jones, who was unwilling to comment on this particular story to the Business & Media Institute, told BMI he isn’t an ombudsman.


     “USA TODAY doesn't have an actual ombudsman,” Jones wrote in an e-mail to BMI. “But as reader editor, I am the primary link between the news organization and its print and online audiences. The job includes reviewing and sharing input from readers, selecting and publishing letters to the editor and serving on the newspaper's editorial board.”


     Since the fallout from a USA Today scandal involving Jack Kelley, a longtime reporter at the newspaper who in March 2004 was discovered to have been fabricating stories, the prominence of the Reader Editor was raised by Ken Paulson, editor of USA Today, according to a Dec. 10, 2004, PBS “NewsHour” case study on the Kelley-USA Today scandal.


     “In every edition of the paper, a photo of Reader Editor Brent Jones appears on the editorial page, soliciting feedback and concerns about USA Today's coverage,” the study said. “Jones then takes that feedback into a daily meeting with editors at the paper. He told the Online NewsHour that ‘readers appreciate having a direct line of communication’ with the editors of the paper and that the overall reaction has been ‘positive.’”


     Phone calls and an e-mail to Gannett News Service Managing Editor Laura Rehrmann for comment on the story were not returned over two weeks’ time.