Sins of Omission and Emphasis

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, October 21, 2007

Readers often attach as much importance to what is not in a story -- or what is not emphasized -- as they do to the story itself.

A Page 1 story on an advisory from the Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition, which urged pregnant and breast-feeding women to eat at least 12 ounces of fish a week, was criticized by environmental groups that cite the danger of mercury contamination in fish.

The Oct. 4 article by reporter Sally Squires said the advisory came from "a coalition of top scientists from private groups and federal agencies" and is at odds with advice from the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The recommendation did not originate with coalition members; in fact many of them knew nothing of it. It came from the Maternal Nutrition Group, comprising 14 physicians, researchers and nutritionists, most of whom are at universities. The coalition's board of directors, which does not include scientists or any federal officials, decided the recommendation should be publicized, said Judy Meehan, the coalition's executive director.

Officials of the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expressed their opposition to the advisory in a letter that The Post published Oct. 13. Squires said she called both agencies in reporting the story, but officials declined to comment. The coalition has since posted on its Web site a disclaimer that the coalition board's approval of the advisory "in no way implies that it has been endorsed by our member organizations."

Squires's story should have mentioned that the National Fisheries Institute, an industry trade group, paid $60,000 to publicize the study and $16,000 for travel expenses and honoraria for members of the nutrition group, which met recently in Chicago. NFI spokesman Mary Anne Hansan said the group did not pay for any of the research.

"New and independent scientific research about eating fish deserves a full and fair hearing, which is why the seafood industry openly supported this public discourse," she said. James McGregor, a visiting professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Southern California and convener of the Maternal Nutrition Group, said he asked the NFI for the money because "there's only so many ways to get people together."

Science Editor Nils Bruzelius said he and Squires were aware of the institute money and "in hindsight, I wish we had included it." He said he did not realize that coalition members were not endorsing the advisory. "I had the impression they had endorsed these recommendations, which went into my thinking in offering the story for Page 1."

Squires is writing a column on the controversy for Tuesday's Health section. The confusion over who was endorsing the recommendation should have led to a prompt second story or a clarification.

Several readers complained about a Page 1 story Oct. 13 that quoted Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the former U.S. troop commander in Iraq, as saying the 2003 invasion plan was "catastrophically flawed." He blamed "the administration, Congress and the entire interagency, especially the State Department . . . for this catastrophic failure."

They found online Sanchez's prepared remarks to the Military Reporters and Editors group and were incensed that The Post's Josh White did not mention Sanchez's criticism of the media until the story's last paragraph.

Dean Dykema of Laurel wrote: "Journalists seem to like it when Sanchez criticizes the Bush administration. But when Sanchez delivers devastating criticism of journalists, this is something that can be . . . ignored."

Sanchez went far beyond his prepared remarks with an extensive question-and-answer period and chatted afterward with several reporters, White said. Sanchez departed from his text several times -- with a critique of his own performance -- and praised several reporters as well.

White thought that Sanchez's comments on the media "were important and interesting, and that's why I included them." R. Jeffrey Smith, the National investigative editor to whom White reports, said, "White wrote well and appropriately about Sanchez's complaints, which were utterly predictable after extensive media coverage of his actions in Iraq during the period of the Abu Ghraib abuses. What was unpredictable, and therefore much more newsworthy, was his pointed criticism of others in the federal government. We're happy to write about the people who don't like us, but in the context of his full remarks, those complaints were much less electric."

What Sanchez said about the administration was more newsworthy, but reporters should bend over backward to report criticism of the media; a few more paragraphs a bit higher would have satisfied many complaints.

White's account was one of just a few that mentioned the press criticism. Stories by the New York Times, the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Hearst and Reuters did not.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or

© 2007 The Washington Post Company