Friends or foes? The media’s portrayal of sharks & the influence on human perspectives

Written by Janey Sellars

The media presents a huge platform of which to relay information in a way that influences the way people perceive things. Since the 21st century, technology and online databases have developed significantly and the global media is expanding as a result, reaching more people than ever before. Human perceptions, values and attitudes towards the environment therefore change in conjunction with how the media portrays it. Links between these attitudes have been studied in various areas of social science for decades, with focus on human-wildlife conflicts becoming increasingly important. One of the best examples of this is seen in the global media’s coverage of shark attacks.

Collage
A collection of headlines used to spread fear and misinformation around shark attacks

Shark attacks are a highly emotive topic and the terror they can evoke is one of the main reasons we find these apex predators so intriguing. Although shark attacks are quite rare in comparison to other animal attacks on humans, they do attract a high level of media interest, influencing society’s perceptions to their potential danger. Especially when the encounters can lead to fatalities, resulting in a generation of public anxiety and fear towards these magnificent creatures. Understanding and exploring how the media presents attacks and how they change the public’s perception of sharks is important to increase understanding of the environmental, ecological and social issues circling the topic. Primarily the conservation of shark species, which is of the upmost importance.

Queensland & sharks

With 35,000km of coastline, around 11,900 beaches, 174 species of shark and a climate advantageous to marine predators, Australia is one of the best places in the world to study the media’s portrayal of shark attacks. In particular Queensland where large overlaps between human activities and shark populations have occurred for centuries. There is therefore a long history of shark attacks here and complex and changing relationships between them and humans. These relationships have been heavily influenced by the media, because of a general lack of understanding of shark behaviour.

When the first European settlers arrived in Queensland in 1788 knowledge about sharks was very limited. However this soon changed as they began to explore the marine habitats off the coast, especially when they began extracting their valuable resources. In 1870, the pearling industry was introduced in Queensland, whereby people would free dive to collect oyster shells containing pearls from the ocean bed. Many people involved in the pearling industry fell victim to shark attacks due to the close encounters within shark territories. This continued well into the 20th century with the addition of abalone diving fisheries in the 1960’s. This was the beginning of the stigma around sharks being regarded as mortal enemies of seamen.

 

Pearl divers
Pearl fishermen from Queensland, pictured in 1920, were particularly susceptible to shark attacks

Today the situation is very different due to a shift in commercial use of oceans with an influx in recreational activities and tourism. Rather than fisheries being a primary source of attacks it is now pastimes such as surfing, swimming and other water sports. Public interest in shark populations and territories are therefore of growing interest, resulting in an increase in media coverage. The boom of leisure activities in Queensland as well as across the globe has been massive since the start of the 21st century, meaning that this human-wildlife conflict also has a big financial implication to Queensland’s economy.

Increased sensationalism

Due to Queensland having such a long and complex history with shark attacks, I chose it as the location for my own study into shark attacks and the media. For my undergraduate dissertation I collected data on media reports of unprovoked shark attacks (where people accidentally came into contact with sharks without knowing they were there) from over more than 150 years. I studied 84 separate shark attack incidents, reported in a total of 562 different newspaper articles, between 1862 and 2016. Using a ranking system I then attributed scores based on the level of emotive language and factual accuracy of each article.

Headlines
An example of some of the articles used in my study

The main finding from my study was that over time there was a significant increase in the level of sensationalism used by the media to report the attacks, which provoked considerable public interest in the topic. In particular a huge influx in fears towards sharks in the 1970’s with the release of the motion picture ‘Jaws’ in 1975. There was also an increase in the number of attacks over time with a shift from professional conflicts with fishermen to increased conflicts within the tourism and leisure industry, which suggests we are to blame for escalating these conflicts. Overall this has led to a generation of public anxiety and fear towards these misunderstood creatures.

Shark culling

The biggest impact of the increased sensationalism by the media and resulting fear factor has been the culling of sharks in Australian waters. With the introduction of Jaws and other horror stories surrounding sharks, the public opposition to killing sharks dwindled allowing for more aggressive and unnecessary measures. Three of the six Australian states already enforce shark control programs. This also includes the instalment of shark nets, present in Queensland since 1962, which prevent sharks from coming into inshore waters.

Jaws poster
The original movie poster for Jaws, released in 1975, is one of the most iconic and fear-inducing images in movie history

However today an increase in research into shark behaviour and motives behind attacks suggests this may be on the verge of changing. Outside of Australia many shark species are suffering widespread population decline due to illegal shark finning, bycatch and coral reef decline. This makes the idea of culling them in Australia, due to misguided information and fear, even more controversial. Culling is now a highly polarised topic and ironically the debate is becoming increasingly highlighted in the media.

Future conflicts & conservation

The future of shark conservation and human attitudes towards sharks depends on the level of sensationalism in media publications. Unfortunately the media is still using emotive language to portray sharks under a bad light with little or no scientific facts to back up their claims. Therefore conservation of sharks is highly dependent on whether communities can collaborate and gain a true understanding of sharks, as well as challenge media companies over sensationalism. However there is also a limit to how much research regarding shark behaviour can be passed on to the general public without the use of the media. This makes the conflict even more complex as the media is a big part of both the problem and the solution.

The Sun article
Headlines like this are the major cause of the problem, people need to start questioning them more and think for themselves

Although leisure activities like swimming and scuba diving are in part responsible for the increase in interactions with sharks, ironically they may also be part of the solution. Nowadays people are able to observe the behaviour of sharks in their natural habitat more freely and in a controlled manner. This has the potential to lead to raised awareness and understanding of the behaviour of sharks within their natural environment in more of a positive light. Recreational activities conducted on a regular basis can provide valuable information regarding the environmental state and population demographics of species, which is invaluable to researchers. It can also allow these activities to be planned out in a way in which they can reduce overlap with sharks and hopefully prevent future attacks.

Conclusions

To sum up, the relationship between sharks and humans has had a profound impact on the management of sharks for centuries. However, with recent technological advances the media is now able to reach more people and influence the relationships by framing stories and twisting the truth to give sharks a bad name. Once regarded as a valuable and elusive creature they are now perceived as ocean monsters. It is an issue that has only increased with time and is likely to continue as human and shark populations continue to overlap in places like Queensland.

Tiger shark
A tiger shark swims around in Queensland waters

However, hopefully with the increasing use of the oceans recreationally and commercially, as well as increased education, people will also become more aware of this issue. Which in turn will lead to the development of more open-minded attitudes towards sharks and less reliance upon the media for information on them. More research over a prolonged period of time is required to determine if this will be the case. However, if this does happen not only will shark attacks decrease, so will their media coverage.

Janey is a recent marine biology graduate from Exeter University, who has a strong interest in human impacts and the future our marine environments. She is looking to further her passion in the marine sector and gain networks with boat handling and fisheries, for enquiries you can contact her via her LinkedIn profile here.

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