Health researchers have had a long and torrid affair with the humble fish. The New York Times article ably sums up the result of their imposing efforts—mass confusion. The story recaps the mixed evidence suggesting that fish eating can cheat death–as well as conflicting evidence suggesting it can speed our trip to the grave. The story’s sources are appropriate and their conflicts mostly transparent. The article’s omissions are mostly minor. However, there is one important failure. The story expresses the most significant reported benefits of fish consumption as reductions in the relative risk of death, but does not translate this into reductions in absolute risk; unfortunately, the JAMA study making the health claim does the same. (Read more about absolute vs. relative risk.) This is particularly relevant, because readers might overestimate the absolute risk reduction attributable to fish consumption for both cardiovascular disease and death.
The article did not report information about the costs of fish (from 63 cents to $2.59 per week, according to the JAMA study), but readers can easily find these on their own if they don’t know them already.
The article expresses the most significant reported benefits of fish consumption—decreases in coronary death and total mortality—as reductions in relative risk. The article does not explain how this translates into reductions in absolute risk. (Read more about absolute vs. relative risk.) The story also doesn't explain what the risk of death is for those who do not consume fish—but neither does the JAMA study that makes the health claim. The story does quote one source who quips, “[The study] would indeed make eating fish the single most important decision you can make for your health.”
The story presents balanced information about potential harms of fish consumption, though it would have been stronger if it had included more detail about harms. For example, it might have noted the effects of mercury on fetal development.
The story explains briefly and accurately the quality of evidence to support the claims of cardioprotection (a mix of controlled trials and observational studies), and in so doing illustrates why it is so difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the health effects of fish consumption.
This article will disappoint fishmongers and disease mongers alike. It carefully mutes the hope and hype surrounding both the purported benefits of dietary fish consumption (reductions in coronary death and death from all causes) as well as the risks (contamination by mercury, PCBs, and dioxins).
The article cites an array of scientific experts, regulatory authorities, industry sources, and representatives of various advocacy groups. It also provides sufficient information to determine their potential conflicts of interest.
The article nicely summarizes the potential advantages and disadvantages of fish consumption. However, it does not compare the reported protective effect of fish either to other potentially cardioprotective foods or to established medical therapies (e.g. aspirin) for cardiovascular disease. Eating fish is only one piece of a healthy lifestyle for minimizing risk of cardiovascular disease and overall mortality.
There isn't any doubt about the availability of fish.
The idea that fish consumption is protective against death and disease is not new, and the article provides sufficient context for readers to accurately judge this.
Because the story relied on several different sources, it is appears safe to assume it did not rely solely or largely on a news release.