The Public Editor Criticizes Fishy Front-Page Story on Mercury and Sushi

Clark Hoyt on an alarmist front-page report on mercury in sushi: "I thought the package was less balanced than it should have been, given the state of existing research."

Public Editor Clark Hoyt's latest column tackled three health-related stories, one of them being the notorious "Mercury in Tuna" story from January that exaggerated the dangers of mercury in tuna sushi. That front-page story began:

Recent laboratory tests found so much mercury in tuna sushi from 20 Manhattan stores and restaurants that at most of them, a regular diet of six pieces a week would exceed the levels considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Hoyt introduced his segment:

Three articles in The Times last month raised an intriguing question: When does fairness demand that a newspaper walk down the middle in a scientific dispute, and when does responsibility demand that it take sides?


Researchers have concluded that mercury can harm the neurological development of young and unborn children. In 2004, the government urged pregnant women, women who might become pregnant, nursing mothers and young children to eat no more than 12 ounces a week of fish known to be low in mercury and to avoid some fish altogether, though not tuna. Freydkin, who is 35 and thinking about children, is right in the target audience, and The Times performed a service for her.

But what about the rest of us? The day after the article appeared, asked a Harvard epidemiologist if people should stop eating tuna. "No," said the doctor, Dariush Mozaffarian. "Over all, the dangers of not eating fish (including tuna) outweigh the small possible dangers from mercury" for healthy adults who eat the recommended one or two servings a week. He stressed the benefits of the fatty acids in fish that appear to help prevent heart disease.

For adults not in the target group for the government's advisory, the effects of mercury at the levels found in The Times's tests are not clear. An accompanying article emphasized several studies saying that elevated mercury levels may be associated with cardiovascular disease. But other studies have found no such association. Marian Burros, the veteran food writer who did the project, said she read all the studies and concluded that the ones that did not find a link were poorly designed, one having only four subjects.

Hoyt concluded with mild criticism:

I thought the package was less balanced than it should have been, given the state of existing research. James Gorman, an editor in the science department who reviewed the article before publication, said he had raised several specific questions but that in retrospect, "I should have raised more questions about the general presentation."