Sharks in Media: Diving Deeper Into How Sharks Are Perceived

Sharks are known as either human-eating or captivating creatures with a long history and reputation of harm and danger. Their reputation has, throughout time, fluctuated between extremes of gruesome descriptions of shark attacks to calls for conservation of an important part of global ecosystems. The common forms of media, such as TV, film and articles alike, each with various, opinionated depictions of sharks have incredibly influenced an individuals’ view on sharks.

By Mia Gomez, 4 March 2021

Great white shark smiling at the camera in its natural habitat. (Anglers Mail, Conservation Action Trust)

Dun dun dun… Famously ominous music starts out a video, viewers immediately sensing that a shark will soon appear in a horrifying scene. The audience continues viewing the media, experiencing fear and panic from shark scenes, of prominently great whites, attacking multiple people in the ocean. Audiences watching those partially unrealistic interpretations of shark attacks on their screens along with the fear-inducing narrative influences their understanding of how sharks live in the ocean.

How Jaws introduced a fear of sharks into mainstream media

Shortly after the release of the Steven Spielberg directed film called “Jaws” came out in 1975 featuring a “killer shark,” the public became obsessed with sharks, both positively interested in learning more and negatively fearful of the creature’s gigantic size and behavior. Although the movie was based on a non-fiction book, it was perceived to many as a realistic source of shark information, leading people to form misleading opinions of sharks (avg. length is 20ft).

At the time of “Jaws,” not much was known about shark behavior, their role in oceanic ecosystems or their physiology. As a new, widespread source for information on sharks, people were intrigued. While some were fascinated by sharks, others felt that “Jaws” revealed that sharks were more dangerous than previously known and needed to be removed as a threat to humans. The latter of these two perspectives was strengthened by the type of language used in the film such as “bloodthirsty,” “monster,” and “maneater,” which incited strong emotions of fear and a ‘Shark Panic’ all along the coasts of the US (Jaws).

Since publication of “Jaws,” a fear of going into the ocean has become a trend that has lasted for decades, fluctuating as shark attack reports come about and are forgotten. It has evolved into violence towards sharks (shark hunts) from people who have good intentions of protecting themselves but feel the only way to solve the problem is to eliminate the threat of their existence.

TV News reporting fuels ‘Shark Panic’

In the decades to follow, sharks found their way into the minds of all ages through mainstream news media reports of shark attacks along coasts worldwide.

Articles describing shark attacks with a victim and/or witness statements label the sharks that attack as relentless, “enormous… deadly predator, hungry for meat,” always assumed to be a great white shark (Malone). By the repetitive use of buzz words that reference fright, danger, and the uncertainty of the species’ natural behavior, people continue to support shark fishing, hence, diminishing shark populations to the point of endangerment and diminishing chances of shark attacks in that specific area.

“The world’s deadliest coldblooded predator then turned and, amid thrashing water, pulled its human prey under the waves…” via Andrew Malone for The Daily Mail

ABC News reports on shark attacks, including the why’s of shark attacks, how to prevent from being a victim, and past news clips of shark attack coverage. (ABC News)

News reporting worsens the sharks’ image by using past attack clips from witnesses, other reports, and the alarming tone of the speaker, a weather reporter with no background in the topic, reporting based on his knowledge and/or other sources. His report goes through shark attack data (2010), descriptions, shark attack victim testimony, attack clips and a negative commentary on sharks.

The TV news report explains that sharks are the “most aggressive during hunting or feeding on prey,” explaining that if a shark’s environment is disrupted and a source of prey declines, they will move on to the next ample source of prey (a reasonable part of their evolution) (“Why Are More Sharks Attacking Humans?”).

Though, most of the time, when a shark attack report is published in the news, a widespread panic from viewers arises without any further researching into its cause.

The Science Behind Shark Behavior and Attacks

The angle of vision of the news video and article shift their approach to sharks to one characterized by a more positive depiction from experiences, expert statements and evidence of a rise in shark attacks due to human activity rather than natural behavior. By the reporters’ switch to a perspective that the sharks he saw during a dive were “incredible,” “beautiful,” “unbelievable to see” and that they “weren’t the ruthless predators he expected” (“Why Are More Sharks Attacking Humans?”). The news sources conclude that humans could possibly be the reason for a rise in shark attacks and the troubling decline in shark populations (est. mid-1900s).

Discovery Channel’s Shark Week has acted as a constant source of reliable shark information (est. 1980’s), each episode with an attention-grabbing title and educational content to better inform the public about sharks. The most recent episode clips have interesting content that even someone who knows a lot about sharks, me, can learn a new piece of information about the importance of sharks, their hunting behaviors, how they relate to humans, or new scientific studies (Shark Week).

Shark Literacy and Conservation in Today’s Media

In addition to overfishing prey populations, cases of mistaken prey identity, and polluting the ocean, an increase in density in beaches causes a higher risk for unprovoked attacks. A recent article explains that the cage diving, wildlife photography and tourism businesses chum the water so people can ‘swim’ with sharks, bringing them “dangerously close to shore,” “creates a familiarity between” humans and sharks and connects “humans with food” (Cramer).

“…spread the message that the white shark should remain protected, not demonized…” via Maria Cramer, NY Times.

Today, the importance of shark conservation is a common and positive conversation. The term “shark attack” has been replaced with “shark bite”, implicating accidental rather than purposeful attack. Negativity associated with sharks slowly leaves the conversation, with even the writer of “Jaws” becoming a big advocate for all sharks, especially the great white.

Poster for Shark Bite Data of 2020 and advice on how to stay safe in the ocean. (Yearly Worldwide Shark Attack Summary, International Shark Attack File, Florida Museum)

PSA: No offense to those who have been victim to or have witnessed a shark attack, but in the majority of cases, humans are to blame for the reason behind the attack, even if the attack is unprovoked, they appear to have an underlying cause stemming from human actions.

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