The Sun's fish story that turned out to be a bad cast

Public Editor

Public Editor

October 08, 2006|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Public Editor

Readers who picked up the Sept. 27 edition of The Sun were greeted at the top of Page One with a blown-up photo of a very toothy fish accompanied by a provocative headline: "A piranha in Dundalk."

The next day The Sun began receiving what eventually became a flood of reader e-mails claiming that the Page One piranha was all teeth and no bite - in fact, a red-bellied pacu, a vegetarian cousin of the meat-eating fish.

The paper's editors were skeptical at first, because the fish in question had been identified as a piranha by biologists at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and at the National Aquarium in Washington.

But after several days of additional reporting, The Sun's outdoors writer, Candus Thomson, confirmed that the e-mailers were correct. Thomson wrote a follow-up article with the new and correct information that ran on the Sports section front Sept. 30.

"The piranha might feel at home chowing down at an Outback Steakhouse while the pacu would be happier grazing at the salad bar," Thomson explained in her article.

In essence, the follow-up article was a correction in the form of a prominently displayed news article. The Sun did what the newspaper must do - investigate the questioned facts and get the correct information to readers as quickly as possible.

Nonetheless, the paper's embarrassment over this whopper lingers like the faint odor of a day-old pacu.

Readers, including some in The Sun's newsroom, wonder whether the prominent play of the original fish story and photo was as much or more of an embarrassment as the mistake in identification.

"It seems as if today's front page, above-the-fold play of the piranha story was totally driven by visuals, rather than the relative news value about the discovery of what is most likely a single aquarium discard," said reader John R. in an e-mail.

Deputy Managing Editor Monty Cook, who oversees the news editing decisions at The Sun, disagrees.

"The reporter had confirmed with a DNR biologist that the fish was a piranha. The photo was eye-catching and showed the teeth of the fish. It was felt that the image would draw readers into the story and more light readers into the newspaper that day. If we hadn't had the `confirmation' from state officials, the story and photos would not have been played where they were."

Indeed, the play of the piranha/pacu reflects a continuing journalistic trend.

As the struggle with declining circulation and increased competition from the Internet continues, newspapers such as The Sun are seeking to highlight stories and photos that have immediate impact on regular readers and that propel infrequent readers into buying single copies of the paper. The piranha-in-Dundalk package was a good example of this trend.

But such efforts need to be balanced - particularly in Page One decisions - by thoughtful consideration of the importance of the news.

Should the paper have given this story such prominence when the article made it clear the "piranha" catch was likely an isolated incident that posed no health or environmental risks?

In my view, reader John R.'s negative view is especially valid because it was offered before the misidentification was reported.

The incident was painful for Thomson, an experienced and widely respected journalist who broke the 2002 story about carnivorous northern snakehead fish inhabiting the Chesapeake Bay.

"I was naturally skeptical," Thomson said of the initial report she received describing a piranha caught by a Dundalk fisherman.

But a veteran DNR biologist examined the actual fish's teeth and proclaimed it a piranha and a second biologist confirmed the identification.

After readers raised the identification issue, Thomson located six additional scientists. Of the six, Dr. Ning Lebbish Chao, a former Smithsonian researcher who now works for an Amazon River basin conservation group, is considered the foremost piranha expert. All the others eventually deferred to his opinion.

Because Dr. Chao lives in the Amazon, the process took hours. But when Thomson and Dr. Chao were finally able to connect and communicate, Dr. Chao confirmed that the Dundalk fish was a pacu, not a piranha.

A number of readers reacted to the follow-up article. David M. Schleser wrote: "I want to compliment your newspaper and Candy Thomson in particular on the informative retraction of the piranha story. It is extremely rare for the media to openly admit an error."

Frank Magallanes said: "Dear Mr. Moore: I think Ms. Thomson did an excellent follow-up story about the recent piranha scare in your newspaper. Hopefully everyone has learned something from this."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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