Case Studies in Earth & Environmental Science
Questions to Ponder and Discuss
- In the early stages of this saga, what devices did the journalists utilize to grab readers? Did this change with time?
- What role did the fact that grade-school children made the initial discovery of deformed frogs play in the popular coverage of the issue? Identify examples where this fact was used to color an article, or to shape an entire article.
- Contrast the first and second newspaper accounts of the Minnesota frogs, by Rebuffoni. How does his style change? If you had been sent to cover this story, would you have approached it differently? In what way?
- What are the major theories of frog deformity? How did they arise, and what is the evidence for them? How were they reported by the researchers?
- Trace the development of one of the theories for frog deformity through the scientific and popular presses. How is this theory played off other theories, and how do various popular writers tackle the changing evidence as it comes in?
- Why was the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) the investigating agency in Minnesota? Looking at their various announcements, do you think the MPCA’s investigative approach or conclusions were influenced by its mandate? What can this tell us as reporters about evaluating the sources of information?
- In 1997, when MPCA and NIESH released results “linking” deformities to “something in the water” what actions did the state of Minnesota take? How do you think these actions influenced public perception of the problem? What examples can you find to support your answer?
- EPA criticized the MPCA and National Institute of Environmental Health when they released their “something in the water” results in 1997. Why? Did EPA have an agenda in criticizing early release of these results? How did later MPCA results compare to the 1997 results? What light did these later results shed on MPCA’s decision to distribute bottled water to those with affected wells?
- Compare the two articles that report on the link between well water and frog deformities (Star Tribune and Washington Post, 10/1/97). Which do you think is the better balanced of the two? Are they different in other ways? Now look at the 10/11/97 article on the same story in Science News. Even though he/she had 10 extra days to research and write the report, did the writer really improve on the story in any way?
- When MPCA released its new results on water-well testing in the spring of 1998 – results which at least in part contradicted the earlier study – which of the publications that had covered the 1997 results covered the new study? Why do you think, or why not?
- Based on what you’ve read about the competing theories regarding the causes of deformities, do you agree with the MPCA’s decision to step back from its frog research, and its call for federal involvement in the issue? MPCA officials later retracted the statement, after pressure from state legislators. How did the agency’s tactics switch after this “change of heart”? In what ways did its later behavior undermine the scientific process?
- The Minnesota discovery “opened the floodgate” for more reporting of deformed frogs. Do you think the “problem” really arose in 1995? Why or why not? What does this case tell us about the dangers of conflating increased reporting and a developing problem? If you think deformed frogs were around, why were they not previously reported?
- When Souder reported Hoppe’s findings in his Washington Post article (10/5/96), he left out a critical fact. What is it, and why is it important (especially to science stories)? Marla Cone briefly acknowledged the fact in her piece.
- Critique the 10/22/96 Star Tribune article. Is the article balanced? What info does it need to make it balanced? Over the course of the next year or so, there are numerous examples of unbalanced pieces. Please share and discuss those you feel are the most poorly written articles.
- In the December 19, 1997 Science article, Stan Sessions says, “I have never seen a scientific or biological phenomenon grow so fast with so few publications”. Can you identify any examples of traps popular writers fell into reporting on unpublished data? Why do you think this story developed in this fashion?
- Consider the January 29, 1997 Washington Post article. Why would David Hoppe want to breed deformed frogs? The outcome of his breeding might have shed considerable light on one theory of deformity – why do you think it was not reported? When might results have been available?
- Do you think Burkhart was out of line (as a scientist) for saying what he is quoted as saying in the last line of the 11/5/97 Star Tribune article?
- Compare the 3 articles written on 10/30/99 by Kaiser, Yoon, and Schoch. Can you identify any biases or imbalances among the three? In what ways is the science piece catering to a different readership than the two newspaper accounts?
- Now read the Doherty piece. Do you agree with his arguments that the whole mutant frog issue was way over-hypes by the media and even the federal government? How does the Doherty article differ from Rockwell’s commentary? Do you think Rockwell accurately portrayed Stanley Sessions and his study’s conclusions (those published in Science)?
- Overall do you think that the later articles accurately and adequately portrayed the science behind the quest for the cause of deformities? Please give examples.
- Science often proceeds with individuals championing their own theories even in the face of contradictory or competing evidence. Identify some examples where one researcher steadfastly holds to one theory when contradictory evidence is released. Do you think he or she erred in doing so? Why or why not? What other agendas might have influenced this behavior?
- Where does the idea that frogs are sentinel species or “canary in a coal mine” for environmental change come from? How do you think this background fact or assumption influenced popular coverage of the issue? Cite examples. Is it a good assumption? Why or why not?
- Numerous popular articles suggest that deformed frogs reveal possible environmental risks to humans. Why would they do this? What is the evidence that humans have anything to worry about from deformed frogs? In an absence of evidence, what assumptions or logical reasoning would lead to this conclusion? Can you find examples where writers have made this reasoning explicit?
- Identify an instance in which you think a popular reporter “jumped the gun” in presenting scientific research or theory as a conclusion. How can reporters evaluate the significance of one finding in the scope of an entire scientific issue? Why do you think this reporter failed to do that?
- Is there a link between deformed frogs and the global frog decline? Look at the May 18, 1999 letter to the Detroit News. Yet even in his 1999 Science paper, Johnson states that “The causes of amphibian deformities and their role in widespread amphibian declines remains conjectural”. What’s going on here? Cite examples where popular authors have merged the two issues. Why might they have done this? Should they have?
- The Minnesota Star Tribune articles are dominated by one author, Tom Meersman. What are some possible pitfalls of having one story repeatedly reported by one author? What are some of the benefits? Find examples to support your answers. Why do you think this happens on a paper like the Star Tribune?
- Find some examples where popular authors tie the deformed frog issue into other local, national or global issues. How do you think this helps or hurts the article? Are the links reasonable? What are some other national or global issues the deformed frog issue might tie into? What are some other ways reporters might have approached this topic?
- Look at the columns in the Weekly Standard, Insight on the News, and the Detroit News editorial on May 2, 1999. What agenda did these authors have? Were their representations about environmentalists well-founded, or were they a strawman? Why do you think they seized upon Sessions’ work? Did Sessions’ paper, or his other statements, really reject other causes such as pollution?
Introduction to the Malformed Amphibian Issue. North American Reporting Center for Amphibian Malformations. www.npwrc.usgs.gov/narcam/backgrnd.
Freaky Frogs. Newshour Transcript, December 23, 1996. www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/science/july-dec96/frogs_12-23.html.
Frequently Asked Questions About Deformed Frogs. Minnesota Pollution ontrol Agency website. www.pca.state.mn.us/hot/frog-faq.html.
Technical Information .
Sessions, S. K., Ruth, S. B. 1990. Explanations for naturally occurring supernumerary limbs and amphibians. J. of Experimental Zoology, 254:38-47.
Bryant, S. V., Gardiner, D. M. 1992. Retinoic acid, local cell-cell interactions, and pattern formation in vertebrate limbs. Developmental Biology, 152, 1-25.
Blaustein, A. R., Kiesecker, J. M., Chivers, D. P., Anthony, R. G. 1997. Ambient UV-B radiation causes deformities in amphibian embryos. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci.., 94, 13735-737.
LaClair, J., Bantle, J. A., Dumont, J. 1998. Photoproducts and metabolites of a common insect growth regulator produce developmental deformities in Xenopus. Environmental Sci. and Technology, 32:10, 1453-60.
Johnson, P. T., Lunde, K. B., Ritchie, E. G., Launer, A. E. 1999. The effect of trematode infection on amphibian limb development and survivorship. Science, 284, 802.
Sessions, S. K., Franssen, R. A., Horner, V. L. 1999. Morphological clues from multilegged frogs: are retinoids to blame? Science, 284, 800.
Rebuffoni, Dean. Deformed Frogs Prompt Investigation. Minneapolis Star-Tribune. September 1, 1995. A1.
Rebuffoni, Dean. Mutants—or What? Minneapolis Star Tribune. November 25, 1995. B3.
Rebuffoni, Dean. A Call to Keep an Eye on the Frogs. Minneapolis Star-Tribune. July 23, 1996. B1.
Souder, William. Deformed Frogs Rattle Experts. Toronto Star. October5, 1996. C6.
Uhlenbrock, Tom. 5-Legged Frog Crops Up in Missouri Pond; Amphibian Deformities are Causing Concern. St. Louis Post Dispatch. 1A.
San Francisco Examiner. Study of Deformed Frogs Pinpoints a Parasite. Minneapolis Star-Tribune. October 22, 1996. A4.
Edwards, Randall. Ohio Frogs: MIA, not Mutant. Columbus Dispatch. October 22, 1996. 1C.
Hallowell, C. Trouble in the lily pads. Time, 87, October 28, 1996.
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