How much did BP edit government-produced science story?

Dateline Earth

Earlier this month Dateline Earth carried a post about a story in Sea Star, the publication of the Washington Sea Grant program, headlined “Mystery at Cherry Point — Washington Sea Grant-funded Scientists Examine the Complex Case of Puget Sound’s Herring Stocks.” The story focuses on scientists’ efforts to come up with a way to pinpoint unique herring stocks in Puget Sound.

State scientist checks the Cherry Point herring spawn
Paul Joseph Brown/P-I

We first got an inkling something might be awry when we got an e-mail from Scott McCreery of the oil company BP, whose refinery at Cherry Point has been a target of criticism for possibly endangering a stock of herring that spawns nearby. McCreery informed us that “much of the information presented in the Sea Star article that you cite in your blog posting of last week was incorrect.” He went on to say Sea Star editors were posting a corrected version of the story and would print a retraction in their next quarterly edition.We dutifully set about trying to determine any fact errors in our post and did discover one minor one, relating to the location of the refinery in relation to Bellingham (it’s north of B’ham.) We do want to correct the record, after all.

But there’s a bit more to the story. McCreery’s e-mail piqued our interest about what had transpired between the oil company and Sea Star, which is a program of the National Marine Fisheries Service housed at the University of Washigton. It sponsors research, does outreach and education, and in the communications arena promotes Sea Grant writers as “unbiased brokers of information (to) help agencies, organizations, businesses, schools and individuals better understand and manage marine resources and the environment.”

It wasn’t long before we heard from environmental advocate Fred Felleman, who has been the most outspoken and dedicated enviro advocating on behalf of the Cherry Point herring. He had also heard about the changes — and was concerned that BP was getting a free ride from Sea Grant.

Well. That looks like a job for Dateline Earth. So, after speaking with McCreery, we asked David G. Gordon, the editor of Sea Star, about the changes.

Now, there were definitely some errors in the original piece. Aside from locating Cherry Point south of Bellingham, the story said also said Cherry Point herring are unique because they lay their eggs in gravel, while other herring spawn on kelp or eelgrass. Cherrry Point herring most spawn on those grasses, too, but if they run out of room they may spawn on other materials. The story also misspelled the name of the Fraser River.

All that needed correcting. Fine. But look at what else was pulled out of the story:

Concerns over declining genetic diversity inspired two separate petitions to list Cherry Point herring under the Endangered Species Act, in 1999 and 2004. Both attempts at listing were overruled by NOAA Fisheries Service, which determined that, while the Cherry Point herring population was discrete — that is, genetically isolated — it was not biologically significant. In other words, herring as a species appeared to be doing well enough without an ESA listing.

Now, there is nothing wrong in that pulled passaged. I asked Gordon, the Sea Grant editor, why he had excised it. He said:

I felt the focus of the story was shifting away from Cherry Point herring. Once we backed off the claim that the Cherry Point herring were unique . . . it didn’t make sense to spend so much effort to focus on the (Cherry Point) herring. It was a red herring.

He went on to say:

We’re trying to put out objective information. The take-home message is really biocomplexity.

Whatever. Here’s the other large-ish passage that was pulled:

It is still unclear why the Cherry Point stock is declining, though dramatic shifts to spawning habitat are likely culprits. Two oil refineries an an aluminum smelter now share the shoreline along which the herring spawn.

Now, I haven’t written about the Cherry Point herring in some years, but I try to keep up on the issue. It definitely is going too far to call BP, ConocoPhillips and Intalco “likely culprits.” But they are discharging pollution off Cherry Point, and it would be silly to pretend that they’re not at least a potential contributor to the herring’s decline.

However, the story, as edited, never raises this point. Here’s what Gordon has to say abou that:

Scott McCreery, he represents BP. He didn’t like being called a culprit.

Right, and certainly the passage went too far. But how about saying they are “possible” culprits, or something like that?

The final change was to the headline. The hammer was changed from “Mystery at Cherry Point” to “The Puzzle of Puget Sound Herring.”

OK, I’ve gone on long enough about this. I just wanted to get on the record was changed, and raise the question about how much impact BP had on this article. I pointed out to Felleman that if BP were totally able to rewrite the story, there were additional changes the company presumably would have made. Felleman’s response:

No, BP did not have full editorial control over this document, but they had considerable control. This is an example of them flexing their muscle.

Posted by Robert McClure at August 25, 2008 10:32 a.m.


~ by fredfelleman on August 27, 2008.

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