Case Studies in Earth & Environmental Science Journalism

Agricultural Runoff and Pollution of Coastal Waters


Session 1:  Dead Zone in Gulf of Mexico

Session 2:  Pfiestria  blooms  in Mid-Atlantic Estuaries

Session 3:  interview:    Andy Juhl,  L-DEO

Questions to Ponder and Discuss

• When did scientists first know about the Dead Zone?

• First coverage on the Dead Zone appeared in 1985 in United Press International, whereas first broad coverage of the issue by the national press occurred in 1990, and not significantly again until 1992-1993.  Why did the issue get such slow initial press coverage, given that research began when it did?   What happened in 1992-1993 to increase press coverage?

• How is the article from the Toronto Star in 1990 an example of how reporters cover stories given scientific uncertainty?  How do other pieces deal with this problem?

• Toronto Star 1990 Stammer.  “A watery desert where nothing lives because pollutants have depleted the oxygen.”   Is this accurate?  Is this an acceptable distortion?  How might you rephrase it?

• How effective was Mark Schleifstein of the Times Picayune in his article “Farms blamed for damage to Gulf food chain” at covering the 1994 paper in Nature by Rabalais?

• How is the scientists’ research ideas characterized or conveyed by journalists?  Do journalists take a perjorative tone towards scientists in any of the pieces?

• We have an assortment of news media covering this story.  What techniques and devices do the journalists use to appeal to a wide array of audiences?  Which ones do a good job?  And which do not?

• How well do some of the articles (if any) cover the issue in an objective or balanced way, as opposed to endorsing or “playing to” either side of the controversy?

• Compare and contrast the two articles from Science.  How well does each incorporate available scientific information of the time?   How does each frame the policy issues of the time? 

•  Look at coverage in Tech Central Station (a web publishing site underwritten by several conservative think tanks  and corporations) and the position statements of the Farm Bureau.  What techniques do skeptics use to attack the scientific basis of the dead zone controversy?  Now look at coverage from the University of Houston’s Daily Cougar.  Compare and contrast.

• Mark Schliefstein’s 1996 piece “Fertilizer, sewage brew Dead Zone”  was part 2 of an 8 part series called “Are the World’s Fisheries Doomed”  that won the Pulitzer Prize in public service reporting.   What attributes made this Pulitzer quality journalism?


Questions to Ponder and Discuss: Pfisteria

• Notice that the Lancet  paper had  13 authors and there is a section on page 538 explaining what each author contributed to the study.  Do you think this kind of breakdown is likely to  be helpful in preventing scientific misconduct?

• If you were  writing about  the Lancet  paper for a popular audience,  how would you begin your piece?

• Compare how different articles treated Jo Ann Burkholder.

• Compare how different articles treated the interests of the agriculturalists and fishers. 

• Compare how different articles treated politicians and state governments.

• Richmond Times,  October 16, 1997, Rex Springston.   Does this Q & A format work well?  Under what circumstances would you favor using this Q&A strategy?

• Washington Post  Outlook section,  Sep 21, 1997.  What does the first person perspective add to this article, relative to all the 3rd person articles we have read?

• How well did the local and regional papers handle the level of uncertainty surrounding the science of Pfiesteria?   Point out good and bad examples.

• How well did the local and regional papers handle the intersection between policy and science, and in particular the difficulties of making policy decisions in the face of scientific uncertainty?

•  Find examples of good news stories,  as contrasted with all the horror story pieces.  What makes an effective good news story?

•  In his book, Rodney Barker exposes to the reader more of the journalist’s techniques than is typical, for example by quoting the exact question he asked in an interview, explaining why he sequenced an interview in a certain order.  Based on the chapter included in your reading book (which comes towards the end of the book), why do you think he did this, and is it effective?  

• Fresh rounds of criticisms of Jo Ann Burkholder’s research erupted in Oct-Nov 1999 and again in Aug-Sep 2002.  How did the different media handle this renewed controversy?


1960’s:  first “lagoons”  built on NC farms to contain animal waste

1988:  Pfisteria first observed as contaminant in lab fish cultures

1991:   JoAnn Burkholder,  NC State,  discovered Pfiesteria in Pamlico Estuary, NC

since 1993:   “waste lagoons” in NC have been required to have clay liners.

1995:  Oceanview farm  NC 25 million gallon spill from breached lagoon into New River NC.   Killed 25 million fish, closed 365,000 acres of coastal wetland to farming.

1996:  commercial fishermen (watermen) began noticing “punched out”  necrotic ulcers and erratic swimming behaviour in fish in the estuaries along the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay.

August 1997:  fish kills in eastern shore of Chesapeake.

Fall 1999:  Hurricane Floyd  dumped 20 inches of rain on North Carolina, following  a drought.   Flooded farms.  100 million gallons of hog effluent dumped into waterways.  No big pfiesteria outbreak, maybe because of dilution?


Background & Technical Information on the Dead Zone

Turner, R. E., and Rabalais, N. N., 1991. Changes in Mississippi River water quality this century. Implications for coastal food webs. BioScience, v. 41, p. 140-147.

Turner, R.E., and N. Rabalais. 1994. Coastal Eutrophication Near the Mississippi River Delta. Nature 368:619-621.

United States.  Congressional Research Service.  Marine Dead Zones: Understanding the Problem. November 1998. 5 November 2004  

Solow, Andrew S. 2004.  Red Tides and Dead Zones: The coastal ocean is suffering from an overload of nutrients, Oceanus online magazine of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (adapted from “Red Tides and Dead Zones: Eutrophication in the Marine Environment,” which first appeared in U. S. Policy and the Global Environment, Last updated Dec. 22, 2004.

Press Releases

Farm Bureau Files Comments on Gulf of Mexico Report. 8 Aug. 1999. American Farm Bureau Federation. 6 November 2004

“Farm Bureau Muddies Debate on Mississippi River Pollution: Illinois River Advocates Set Record Straight on ‘Dead Zone’ Connection.” PR Newswire. 9 August 2000.  

Popular Articles

Miller, David.  "Tightening the Belt."  Seattle Times  5 Jan. 1992: A1.

Untitled Wire Report. United Press International  25 July 1985.

“Fertilizer seen as key to poor gulf water quality.” Engineering News-Record  12 Nov. 1987: Pg. 1.

Mayfield, Mark. “Scientists venture into depths of the 'dead zone'.” USA Today  12 June 1990: 5A.

Stammer, Larry B. “Gulf of Mexico under siege Wave of pollution threatens beaches, fishing grounds.” The Toronto Star  2 July 1990: A11.

“Gulf fish kill blamed on mix of 'dead zones,' Hurricane Andrew.” United Press International, 29 Aug. 1992.

Holmstrom, David. “Mississippi Flooding Leaves a Toxic Legacy: Pollution in Gulf of Mexico.” Christian Science Monitor  7 Sept. 1993: 1.

Schleifstein, Mark. “Farms Blamed For Damage To Gulf Food Chain.” Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA)  6 May, 1994: B1.

Ballingrud, David. “Farm belt sowing seeds of bitter harvest in gulf.” St. Petersburg Times (Florida)  5 Jan. 1997: 1B. 

“U.S. agriculture's environmental practices.” The Kiplinger Agriculture Letter 12 Sept. 1997: Vol. 68; No. 19.

Schleifstein, Mark. “Fertilizer, sewage brew dead zone.” Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA)  25 March, 1996. PART OF PULITZER-WINNING SERIES: (see also graphics at site)

Yoon, Carol Kaesuk. “A 'Dead Zone' Grows in the Gulf of Mexico.” New York Times  20 Jan. 1998: F1.

Malakoff, David.  “Death by Suffocation in the Gulf of Mexico.” Science.  281 (1998): 190-92.

Warrick, Joby. “Death in the Gulf of Mexico,” National Wildlife 37(4), June/July 1999, p. 48.

Joyce, Stephanie. “The Dead Zones: Oxygen-Starved Coastal Waters.” Environ. Health Perspect. 2000 Mar; 108(3):A120-5.

Ferber, Dan. “Keeping the Stygian Waters at Bay.” Science (2001); 291: 968-973.

Knudsen, Natalie. “Water-Quality Sleuths: Corn Growers Commit to Nitrogen Research.” Soybean Digest  15 March 2001.

 “The Dead Zone.” The Economist  August 24, 2002: U.S. Edition.

Wilde, Matthew. “Farmers Try to Improve Public Image on Environmental Issues.” Waterloo Courier  17 March 2003.

Mississippi Dead Zone. 10 Aug. 2004. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. 1 Nov. 2004

Fumento, Michael. “The ‘Dead Zone’ Fish Story.” Tech Central Station 16 Aug. 2004

Schleifstein, Mark. “Farmers Find Fuel in Dead Zone Study; Nitrogen Not the Only Culprit in the Gulf.” Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA)  31 Aug. 2004: A1.

Clement, Matthew T. “Corporate farms just create shark bait.” The Daily Cougar

16 Sept. 2004.

Giberson, Tony. “Storms may have helped disperse Gulf 'dead zone'.” Pensacola News Journal 4 Oct. 2004.

Pfisteria in Mid Atlantic Estuaries

Background & Technical Readings

Anon. Lesions on menhaden caused by the dinoflagellate Pfiesteria,  from “The Harmful Algae Page”  web resource of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Obtained 3/9/06,

Anon. Pfysteria Hysteria. From “Pfiesteria Hysteria Shocks Mid-Atlantic Region” web resource of Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Obtained 3/9/06,

Greer, Jack. 1997.  In Harm’s Way? The Threat of Toxic Algae, Maryland Marine Notes, 15(4), July-August.

Greer, Jack. 1993. Alien in Our Midst? Phantom Algae Suspected in Bay, Maryland Marine Notes, 11(3), March.

2001. Image from “Pfiesteria: From Biology to Human Health”, Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 109, Supplement 5, October 2001,  Monograph based on articles presented at the CDC National Conference on Pfiesteria: From Biology to Public Health held 18-20 October 2000 in Stone Mountain Georgia USA, edited by Michael A. McGeehin and Carol H. Rubin.

Pfiesteria Science Articles

Burkholder, J. M., Noga, E. J., Hobbs, C. H., and Glasgow Jr., H. B., 1992. New ‘phantom’ dinoflagellate is the causative agent of major estuarine fish kills.  Nature, 358: 407-410.

Grattan, L. M., Oldach, D., Perl, T. M., Lowitt, M. H., Matuszak, D. L., Dickson, C., Parrott, C., Shoemaker, R. C., Kauffman, C. L., Wasserman, M. P., Hebel, J. R., Charache, P., and Glenn Jr., J. G., 1998.  Learning and memory difficulties after environmental exposure to waterways containing toxin-producing Pfiesteria or Pfiesteria-like dinoflagellates, The Lancelot, 352: 532-539, August 15, 1998.

Silbergeld, E. K., Grattan, L. M., Oldach, D., and Morris, J. G. 2000.  Pfiesteria: Harmful Algal Blooms as Indicators of Human: Ecosystem Interactions, Environmental Research Section A 82: 97-105.

Burkholder, J. M. and Glasgow, H. B. 2001.  History of Toxic Pfiesteria in North Carolina Estuaries from 1991 to the Present, BioScience 51(10): 827-841. 

Pfiesteria Popular Articles

Mulvaney, K., 1996.  Watch out for killer algae: Years of dumping hog waste into North Carolina rivers has created a monster, The Environmental Magazine, 7(2): 15. 

Davis, K. J., Pfiesteria: Deadly fish-killer; Scientsits are putting shape-shifter under-scope, The Virginia-Pilot, August 29, 1997, p. A1.

Mlot, C., 1997, Unraveling a fish killer’s toxic ways, Science News, 152: p. 202.

Warrick, J. and Brown, D., One scary, mysterious microbe: Scientists lean toward caution in debate over Pfiesteria, The Washington Post, September 18, 1997, p. A1.

Latane III, L. Seaman: ‘I don’t see anything wrong’; Waterways safety defended despite Pfiesteria scare, Richmond Times Dispatch, September 21, 1997, p. A1.

Mlot, C., 1997.  The rise in toxic tides: What’s behind the ocean blooms?, Science News, 152(12): 202.

Shiffer, J. E. and Clabby, C., Testing the waters: Despite spotlight, pfiesteria still a mystery, The News and Observer (Raleigh N.C.), September 21, 1997, P. A1.

Hostetler, A. J., Scientists track elusive predator; Pfiesteria’s disguises challenge researchers, The Richmond Times Dispatch, October 5, 1997, p. B1.

Hostetler, A. J., Pfiesteria evidence sketchy; still, scientific puzzle becomes a political issue, Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 12, 1997, C1.

Springston, R., Pfiesteria, The cell from hell; Many questions, few clear answers. Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 16, 1997, E1.

Kirkpatrick, C. Pfiesteria kills and then vanishes, Durham Herald, November 11, 1997, C1.

Shoemaker, R. C., Fish kills, facts and Pfiesteria; My patients and the river told me what I had to know, The Washington Post, September 21, 1997, C1.

Barker, R., And the waters turned to blood, Simon & Schuster, NY, 1997, 288-309.

Pelley, J., 1998, What is causing toxic algal blooms, Environmental Science & Technology, 32(1): 26A-30A.

Burn, T., 1998, Pfiesteria fear, loathing; Fisherman, Md. officials brace for a new scare, The Washington Times, May 25, 1998, D14.

Goodman, P. S., Scientists puzzled as Pfiesteria fizzles; Experts don’t know why toxic microbe was a no-show in Chesapeake Bay, The Washington Post, September 23, 1998, B5.

Thompson, E., Fishermen bridle at talk of Pfiesteria, Associated Press, November 21, 1998.

Goodman, P. S., The cost to the Bay; Who pays for what is thrown away? Impact of new pollution controls may hinge on liability for manure, The Washington Post, August 3, 1999, A1.

Stuckey, T., Senator hopes study will put an end to “Pfiesteria hysteria”, The Associated Press, October 27, 1999.

Branigin, W., Study of Va. Fish kill points to parasite, The Washington Post, November 10, 1999, A12.

Mizejewski, G., Pfiesteria discoverer rejects other parasite killing fish, The Washington Times, November 12, 1999, C3.

Springston, R., Pfiesteria hysteria: Bay threat is small; Dormant again, scientists work to find answers, Richmond Times Dispatch, December 16, 1999, E1.

Floegel, M., 2000, The dirt on factory farms, Multinational Monitor,  21(7/8): 24, 5 pgs..

Nierenberg, D., Toxic Fertility, WorldWatch Magazine March - April 2001: 30-38.

McGrath, G., Danger of marine microbe up for debate, Wilmington Star-News, Augst 12, 2002, 1B, 3B.

Clabby, C., Toxic words over algae, The news & Observer, September 23, 2002, A1.

Anon, NCSU researcher faces dispute over Pfiesteria’s dangers, the Associated Press, September 23, 2002. 

Kaiser, J., 2002, Is sugary toxin the smoking gun?, Science, 298:945-946.

Anon., 2006, Possible estuary-associated syndrome is caused by Pfiesteria piscicida toxins, Obesity, Fitness and Wellness Week, January 7, 2006, p. 423.

Shelsby, T., 2006, Bay’s chief advocate works to make peace with farmers, Baltimore Sun, January 8, 2006, 5G.


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