Testing Chicago Fish Opens Door Into Big National Story

May 15, 2006

 

By MIKE DUNNE


 A combination of writing stories about mercury pollution and wondering why a pregnant wife has to be careful about eating fish became an idea for an in-depth look at tainted seafood for sale in Chicago – and why the government has fallen down on the job of protecting consumers.

Chicago Tribune reporters Michael Hawthorne and Sam Roe decided that although the topic of mercury in fish is not new, it deserved a deeper look. Roe remembers thinking as he bought fish in the store while his wife was expecting their twins: "This is outrageous. How did we get to this point in this country where we have to watch how much fish we eat?"

"A lot has been written on mercury, but it seemed not enough," he said. So he and Hawthorne pitched the idea to editors, who decided the way to approach the story was to test fish in Chicago markets.

The newspaper ended up not only doing testing, but in the case of one Midwestern favorite fish, walleye, the newspaper tested four times more walleye for this three-part series than the federal government had tested in the previous 30 years.

Tuna, often seen as a healthful addition to one's diet, can be a source of mercury, and "light" or gourmet tuna didn't come with less mercury than regular tuna, the series concluded.

Publishing "The Mercury Menace" was more than just going out and testing some fish. Hawthorne and Roe realized what they were trying to do would be controversial, so they wanted the Tribune study to stand up to scientific standards. That took a lot of extra planning and research, but made the findings less subject to criticism.

The package ran Dec. 11-13, 2005. Before the New Year turned, the Food and Drug Administration announced it would investigate whether tens of millions of cans of tuna sold each year contain potentially hazardous levels of mercury.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, called on America's tuna companies to take steps to protect consumers from high mercury levels.

Recently released studies seem to bolster the newspaper's findings.

The series resonated with readers, Roe and Hawthorne said. And, it shows that just because a story has been written about in other newspapers, reporters can still break new ground and advance an important story, Roe said.

To find out how the duo researched and reported on this story, SEJournal interviewed the two to get the Inside Story:

How did you conceive this project? What was it that made you think this would be a great in-depth story? Michael Hawthorne (MH): We came at it from similar but different means. We both were looking at this as something that would be a good thing to look into more in-depth. We both knew a lot has been written about this, at least if you look at what has been written in environmental journalism. But, it seemed like nothing had really changed – that the policies hadn't changed. I was really struck by all of this that had happened in the early 2000s and there was a lot of criticism out there….It would come up when I would write about things like pollution coming from coal-fired power plants or other environmental hazards. It just kept coming up.

Sam Roe (SR): When my wife became pregnant a couple of years ago, she did some research and saw where she needed to limit her intake of fish. One of my duties was to go to the grocery store during that time and make sure I was not getting too much yellow-fin tuna or tilapia or whatever and as I am weighing this stuff I think: "This is outrageous. How did we get to this point in this country where we have to watch how much fish we eat?" And like Mike said, a lot has been written on mercury, but it seemed not enough. When we told the editors here that we wanted to do something on mercury – and I hate to give editors too much credit, it sounds funny – they came up with a brilliant idea: Why don't we go out and test our own fish. Some have done that, but on a limited level.

It did two things: It gave us an automatic consumer-public service kind of story to work with. We could publish our findings and it would be simple to report and it would be a real public service. Secondly, it gave us an entry point into this massive topic. This is a massive topic. What do you write about? Do you write about the international problem or do you write about the pollution in your own local river? What's the entry point? Testing gave us that entry point.

There was a researcher at Rutgers University who had just published something in one of the scientific journals right when we started looking at this. I went back and looked at a lot of the other things this researcher had done and it was quickly apparent she was one of the only people in the country trying to do a systematic, scientifically-based look at mercury levels in different types of fish. As both of us said, a lot of good stuff had been written on mercury, but often times it is a television station or a newspaper running out to the store and buying a couple of fillets and saying this is what we found. We wanted to try to make it as close to scientifically valid as possible, to give it a little more oomph. We spent a good deal of time just in preparation, just getting the methodology we would use. We based it in large part on what the folks at Rutgers had done, and they ended up doing the testing for us.

We wanted it to hold up to scrutiny afterward and that was why we wanted it to be scientifically valid. We knew the industry may come back and criticize the way the study was done, or did we test enough fish, or how did you get these fish? It took a long time to do. It made the project take two extra months, but I am glad we did it that way.

MH: That had two benefits: Nobody could say we picked on a particular grocery store or something like that because we did a random sampling from supermarkets and area codes around the Chicago area. It made it scientifically valid because of the randomness of it. But also, from a newsroom perspective (to poke a little fun at the editors), it prevented that anecdotally driven element where some editor comes by and says, "What about my supermarket? What about the place I go get fish or what about this particular fish?" So, we went through a process to settle on which fish do we want to test and we held fast to our guns that we
were going to pick randomly selected supermarkets .  There are two dominant chains in the Chicago area and most of the places we went were one of those two chains.

How did you pick out which fish to test? SR: Based on our preliminary reading, we knew that swordfish tended to be high – it is on the FDA-EPA warning as something women of child-bearing age and young children should avoid. But, we found it everywhere we went. We found it at every store we went to with no warning label on it. That was one type of fish we had tested. We also looked at the testing the FDA has done. Its tests have shown orange roughy is pretty high, but there is no warning about orange roughy. We chose salmon, in part, because we knew it tested low. We wanted to be able to point people in the direction of a fish that is low, at least in mercury. We also chose tuna because it is such a huge part of the seafood we consume and it has been a real bone of contention for many years between public health advocates, industry and the FDA….There were some other fish that didn't make the cut because we had a limited budget and we had only so many fish we could do. One we did do was walleye, a fish that is very popular in the Midwest. If you are a freshwater fisherman in Lake Erie or you go to some of the lakes and streams in Michigan, you are likely going after walleye. And there is a warning on walleye when you go get your fishing license but there isn't anything about the commercial walleye you buy at the supermarket, although we found it can come from the same place, which is Lake Erie.

We wanted to test some of the fish the government hasn't tested. So we'd be adding to the debate a bit. But, those were tough decisions to make. You can only have a certain amount of money to spend – so much so you have to roll the dice a little. You want to make sure you can pick fish that are popular and you can find in any supermarket, but you also want to pick fish that you can have something to say about. But, you are not really sure what that is until you do the testing. We were not sure what we were going to find in some of those fish. We didn't know if walleye was going to come in high or low or what.

Can you talk a bit about the cost? SR: In the first round, we did 144 samples and that cost approximately $8,000. And then we did a second round with gourmet canned tuna. That cost about $1,500. So we are thinking with shipping costs, and some little equipment here and there – boxes and icepacks – the whole study cost us about $10,000.

I noticed you had a lot of history of FDA dealing – or not dealing – with mercury and the like. How did you find that information? Can you talk about some of the sources of information that you used? MH: We started with the basics. We did Nexis searches going back to the '70s or as far back as we could. And that was basically a place to look at whether there was a reference to some kind of document. If there was, we got the source document. We had a couple of FOIAs (Freedom of Information Act requests) with FDA and there were various places where we found documents in the public record – the Federal Register and other things like that. It's like any other investigative work – you are peeling back the layers of the onion. You find one thing and that leads to something else, you go find that document, and it leads to something else, and the next thing you know, your desk is more cluttered than it usually is and it is all about one subject. We supplemented that with interviews. We tried to find people who were around at the time. Of course, some people didn't want to talk about it. Some of them, unfortunately, are dead. One thing very helpful to us to piece together how the government was, at one point, very aggressive and then was not. We went to a federal records repository in Atlanta and copied the case file from this trial in 1977 when the swordfish industry fought the FDA in court. It was kind of the zenith of the agency's effort to crack down on mercury in seafood. And, the industry won that case. There is a little bit of that that the government won….Overall, the government lost that case and from what we could tell through interviews, they (the FDA) just gave up.

Now you have a desk full of information on one topic. How did you organize and sift through all that material? SR: The key to this was to sort of outline the series early and often and even outline each section of each day (of the series). Early on, we saw there were two big questions we needed to address: One, how big is the problem in the Chicago area and that would be our testing and what would scientists say about the harm mercury causes, et cetera? And, two, who is responsible for this? Like I said, I was in the grocery store thinking, "How the heck is this going on?" So we thought the first day would be very consumer-oriented and the second day would be why the FDA hasn't done more on this issue. So, we did see this as a natural two-day series and we started to divide up the work into sections.

But so much for planning. It turns out the Chicago White Sox were in the World Series last fall for the first time in nearly a century and the Tribune spent a lot of time and a lot of space on the White Sox. So, there was not much space left for projects, especially in December when this ran. Instead of running this two-day series, we split it into three smaller days, which actually worked out best for the long run because it allowed us to really explore canned tuna in a more meaningful way. After the White Sox won the World Series, it turned out that we did find out more about what goes into canned tuna. So, as it turned out, we had a three -day series and thr third day turned out to be a pretty stong package.  But, with any series or project or investigative piece, you can sit down and force yourself to outline it like you would outline a school paper.  If it doesn't fit the outline, even if it is interesting, you put it aside for a later story of for a later date.

MH: We were fortunate enough that the editors were really behind the whole idea and they were involved from the very beginning. So, we were routinely talking to them and going over where we thought the reporting was going and when we started writing where the writing was going. If you look at the final product, I wonder was that the fifth draft or 20th draft? How did it end up that way? It is that natural editing process you go through a little more intensely when you have a project.

I noticed that the victims of mercury poisoning were not from Chicago. I know my editors would want someone local. Did you have a problem finding someone local? SR: We did have trouble finding local victims. I am not sure why that is. It may be that it is an emerging issue. Doctors across the country really don't know too much about this lowlevel mercury poisoning, or maybe we just didn't do a good job of finding local folks. We did convince the editors we had victims and this is a national story and it really didn't matter where they lived. If we had a lot of local victims, we certainly would have used those.

MH: If you look at the scientific literature out there, at least in terms of studies of mercury in America, there really hasn't been a lot of it in terms of actual clinical work of individuals. Or, if it has been done, it has been done blindly, so finding the actual participants in these is difficult. There is a physician in San Francisco who has enough patients who have been willing to come forward. We have heard there are other physicians who have taken interest in this, but it is one of these things where, as some people have described it to us, it is like lead was years ago. There are a lot of research scientists working on it, but it has not necessarily settled down to the clinician level. As a result, finding those local people that most papers would want was difficult. The testing sort of took care of that (local angle) for us.

What kind of response did you get? SR: The response from readers was really encouraging. It was very immediate and immense and sometimes it was overwhelming. We were finishing up day three of the series, and we would get an email almost every minute. It was really nice. I have written investigative pieces before where you get no response and you wonder what's the point of that? But, people really care about what's in the food they buy, especially when it is common food like tuna, or canned tuna. They really care, and in many ways, this was a story that resonated with readers. As far as the government response, it has also been pretty good so far. We have gotten response at the local level, the state level, even the national level. We even got some action out of Canada. So, it has been encouraging. It has been a little more than I expected. Would you agree with that Mike?

MH: I would definitely agree with that. It is one of those things, in part because of the Internet and in part because we are fortunate to work for a newspaper that is part of a chain that has its own wire service. So, these stories were filtering throughout the country and on the Internet for some time after we initially wrote them. I'll get an email once a day, even still now – somebody who had read the stories in some other part of the country and they have a question or a suggestion about something. There was that initial flurry of emails, but it is continuing. It does seem to resonate more so than a lot of things we tend to do. We always write as if someone is going to be moved by what we write about – or we like to think about that. I think we are still surprised in some way when you get that response and people thank you. I get tired of reading on Romanesko or somewhere else that newspapers are dead. This gives you an idea that newspapers may stick around forever. Newspapers can do this kind of thing. Who knows if you change anything, but at least you've woken up some people enough so they send you email to say what else should I do, what more can I do? That's what good investigative journalism is all about.

If someone wanted to do a similar story, what advice would you give them? SR: When I started this, I had some reservations about getting into the whole topic of mercury because so much had been written about it. There have been some reporters out there who have done some great work – Ben Raines at the Mobile Register Inside Story 21 (Continued next page) At in Alabama comes to mind, the folks out at the San Francisco Chronicle. One thing I learned doing this is just because a topic has been well-known and well-pursued doesn't mean you shouldn't write about it. I think sometimes, investigative reporters in particular, want to write about something that has never been covered before. You want to reveal something that is totally new, but it might not touch a lot of folks' lives. If the topic is as important as mercury, why not find a way to advance the story? Maybe we should take that attitude with some other bigger stories – you know, global warming or crummy schools, the war in Iraq, whatever it may be. I would encourage folks not to shy away from a story that has already been covered.

Secondly… I was a little amazed at how easy it is to get a lab to test something. Once you find an accredited lab, even if you don't have a lot of money to spend on a testing program, even just a couple of hundred dollars, you can go out and grab a handful of anything – it could be McDonald's French fries or a Whopper or fish or whatnot. Once you test something and find something, it opens up all these other avenues. What else is out there? What do the companies know about this? What do consumers say about this? Why hasn't the government been doing more testing? I don't think you need to do a lot of testing to really cover an issue and to really open up avenues to do some additional reporting

The Mercury Menace: www.chicagotribune.com/news/ specials/broadband/chi-mercury-htmlstory,1,3096866.htmlstory? coll=chi-newsspecials-hed

Michael Hawthorne has been the Chicago Tribune's environment reporter since 2004. He has written about the potential dangers of a chemical used to make Teflon, air pollution from coal-fired power plants and threats posed by invasive species, among other topics. Hawthorne previously worked as the environment reporter for The Columbus Dispatch.

Sam Roe has been a projects reporter at the Chicago Tribune since 2000. Before that, he was at the Toledo Blade. He has twice won the Scripps Howard Meeman Award for environmental journalism for reporting on the hazards of the metal beryllium and for a series on Supercar, America's failed effort to build an 80-mileper- gallon car.

Mike Dunne is associate editor of the SEJournal and reports for The Advocate in Baton Rouge, LA.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2006 issue

MIKE DUNNE