MEDIA: Scaring Up a Story

We've heard this fish tale before. The New York Times spawned another wave of mercury scare stories this week when it ran an article on Wednesday alerting readers that Manhattan sushi joints might be serving them tuna with dangerously high levels of heavy metals. Nevermind that the link between certain fish and methylmercury has been well established for years , the thought that Nobu's maki rolls could be tainted was enough to cause a boomlet of similar news reports.

While it's generally a good thing that Americans get a better sense of just what's in the food they eat every day, most of these stories missed the mark. Out of all the alarmist coverage paid to which restaurants had the highest mercury levels, hardly any probed into the environmental questions at the bottom of the story. Where is this mercury coming from? How is it getting into our food supply? Are mercury levels increasing?

To be fair, a Times editorial the next day took on some of these issues, noting that "roughly two-thirds [of atmospheric mercury] is produced by industrial sources -- especially coal-burning power plants. It settles into the water in a form called methylmercury, is absorbed by bacteria, and then makes its way up to the very top of the food chain -- to humans. It is a reminder of how interconnected all life on earth really is." But that, unfortunately, was one of the few exceptions to coverage of the issue.

In addition to missing the environmental factors at play, many stories fell victim to the temptation to flatten out the story into a simple scare piece. At the most extreme, this involved the New York Post blaring the headline "Mercury In Tuna Stirs Raw Fear," but it took more subtle forms, too. Thankfully, Time ran a palliative Q&A on its website pointing out that Americans are actually suffering more health benefits from not eating fish than they are from the occasional bit of tuna.

What's more troublesome about the trend is the general tendency of the media to focus so wholly on the trappings of upper-middle-class lifestyle when it comes to the cost of environmental degradation. From sushi to bottled water to designer shopping bags, reporters too often choose to report on the environmental impact of luxury items instead of, say, incinerators or power plants. There's nothing inherently damaging about angling stories toward your target audience – except when it starts to muscle out of the kind of harder, investigative pieces we still count on newspapers to do.

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