Feeding Frenzy - Sharks vs The Media

28 May 2015 6 Share

Jock Serong

Senior Writer

Illustration by Lani Paxton

Illustration by Lani Paxton

How the media coverage of this summer's shark encounters failed both man and beast

Article provided by publishing partners  Surfing World Magazine

“A tiger shark, 14 feet in length, was caught from the beach at Coogee last night. When the monster had been landed on the dry sand it was lashed to a ladder and carried to the Aquarium Baths.” The Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 17 April 1930.

“MONSTER sharks are prowling the north coast unrestricted, with marine parks, whale migration, schools of bait fish and a lack of shark nets luring them closer to shore.” The Daily Telegraph, 10 February 2015.

These two sentences appeared in Sydney newspapers nearly 85 years apart. The first describes the capture of the tiger shark which would later disgorge a human arm whilst in captivity, leading to the famous “Shark Arm” murder trial. The latter is the near-hysterical lead which announced the tragic death of Japanese-Australian surfer Tadashi Nakahara at Ballina.

What’s striking about the two sentences is how little the reportage has evolved over all that time.

For the vast majority of Australians, aside from the occasional order of flake, their entire experience of sharks is lived through the media. They will never see one in the wild, will never catch one and most certainly will never be menaced by one. They will rely on broadcast and print media for their understanding of how sharks move, where they live, how they feed and indeed which of their hundreds of species are dangerous to humans.

The same distance from a perceived threat does not apply in relation to road trauma, drugs, human violence or even skin cancer. These statistically dominant causes of death and injury can be observed, assessed and avoided by ordinary people in everyday life. Emotional and intellectual positions can be developed around them through firsthand experience. But where sharks are concerned, unless you’re a surfer or diver, you remain dependant on the media to inform you. This reality places the media in a position of rare responsibility in relation to sharks. And it’s a responsibility they frequently fail to honour.

In January this year, a large shark attacked a dolphin off Newcastle. This, taken on its own terms, is what goes on in the sea every day. It’s called predation. But unhappily for the shark, there were cameras on hand to record the incident, and the Daily Tele’s wordsmiths to dish up the adjectives.

“MONSTER SHARK’S BRUTAL ATTACK ON DOLPHIN” screamed the headline. In the accompanying photos, a lifeguard on a jetski seems hell-bent on rescuing the wounded dolphin. Children on bodyboards are shown frolicking with their grandparents, to remind us this voracious beast might change its focus any minute. And what the hell, let’s throw in three girls in bikinis, because these animals threaten our way of life.

As always for shark stories, a long comments thread built up under the online version of the Tele’s report. But perhaps surprisingly, the posters were unanimous in rubbishing the tone of the reporting. “So shocking that a predator actually needs prey to eat!” scoffed ‘Kelly’.

Small choices in language say a great deal about the journalistic strategy at play. Fear boosts the ratings, sells the paper and draws eyeballs to social media; thus the ugly truism “If it bleeds, it leads.” And if you want to generate fear, and you’re a journo in a hurry, you’re going to resort to terms like “shark-infested waters” (the Herald Sun), “man-eater” (the Courier Mail) and “spate of attacks” (the ABC).  Clichés like these are deployed for their immediacy, and they work.

The other subtle effect of a few choice words is to equip sharks with human motives like malice, brutality and cowardice. “Unprovoked attacks” happen on the footpath in Kings Cross and in the ocean, and we are encouraged to view the perpetrators on equal terms.

THE CLASSIC "GOOD VS EVIL" STORY

THAT CAPTURES AUDIENCES.

A closer look at the reporting of the Ballina tragedy provides several examples. Media outlets around the nation gleefully repeated Ballina Shire mayor David Wright’s exaggeration: “For a shark to take the board and the person sitting on it, it’s got to be very big.” The shark in fact bit parts of the board and the surfer and its size remains unknown. The mayor also confidently announced that “it was likely the shark at Shelly Beach was the same one that bit a man at Seven Mile Beach near Byron Bay, 25 kilometres away…on Sunday morning.” A shark expert from Southern Cross University promptly countered that this was in fact very unlikely.

Fairfax media reported that “a crime scene has been established at Shelly Beach”. This is strictly true – when SW contacted NSW police media they confirmed that they’d used the term “crime scene” in their own press release. But the decision to focus on that objectively small detail – it tells you nothing about whether the beach was closed, a shark had been identified or anything much else – reveals an intent to characterise the attack as an act of malice, just like the Kings Cross footpath. It’s a police matter, the scene of a crime. This vicious bastard killed someone.

The Daily Telegraph opted for the verb “taken”, despite the fact Mr Tadashi wasn’t taken anywhere. And that screaming sub-header about “monster sharks prowling the north coast” takes particular care to politicise a random event, blaming marine parks and a lack of shark nets, thereby raising just a whiff of “greenies did this”.

And of course, the Tele went to Sea World for their science and the company happily obliged. “Well, from what we’ve observed of captive mammals in a tank, we can say with some certainty about wild fish in the ocean…”

The local reporting described above is not particular to our shores. On the Fourth of July weekend in 2001, eight-year-old Jessie Arbogast was playing in knee-deep water in Florida when a seven-foot bull shark severed his arm. Through a remarkable chain of events – his uncle dragged Jessie and the shark out of the water and retrieved the arm, which was then re-attached surgically – he survived. Two further incidents occurred in the following weeks in other parts of America: one was not clearly attributed to a shark, whilst the other was not a bite but a collision with a shark swimming by. Both were non-life threatening. Yet the momentum, the sheer stomach-churning horror of it all, was unstoppable. Within weeks, Time magazine ran a white shark on their cover and coined the term “Summer of the Shark,” which in popular usage came to define the events of that season for Americans.

Tabloid TV relentlessly ran the hell out of it – despite the absence of any evidence for an increase in the number of shark encounters. There were in fact fewer shark encounters internationally and in Florida that year than in the previous year, but it was a slow summer for news. The networks ran chopper footage of annual shark breeding aggregations to stoke the fear that these killers were swarming the beaches. The hype only came to an end when the networks were stopped in their tracks by a singular event: September Eleven. New catastrophe, new villains, whole new feeding frenzy.

In the context of this kind of reporting, it pays once again to set out the facts. Media coverage of shark interactions is an ongoing race between the facts and the hysteria (one that is being safely won by the hysteria), but here’s a few incontrovertible truths anyway.

Sticking with Americans for just a moment, National Geographic has reported that in 1996, toilets injured 43,000 Americans, buckets and pails injured almost 11,000 and room fresheners injured 2600, whilst sharks injured 13. Not 13,000. Thirteen. Meanwhile, the average annual fatality rate for bear attacks in the US remains at a steady three, and for dog attacks it’s 15. For shark attacks, America shares our average of about one per annum. And let’s not even start on firearm statistics.

In Australia, the recognised source for unbiased reporting on shark-human encounters is not the Hobart Mercury or A Current Affair. It is, in fact, the Australian Shark Attack File (ASAF), run out of Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, which shares data with the International Shark Attack File (ISAF). Here’s a few of the things it will tell you.

In the last fifty years there have been forty-five unprovoked deaths from shark encounters in Australian waters. Interactions between sharks and humans have closely followed human population increases, not shark population increases. Our waters, it turns out, are human- infested. Consider: in 1915 there were effectively no surfers in Australia, no scuba divers and no snorkelers. Yet these three user groups make up the clear majority of shark interactions, fatal and otherwise, and those interactions have remained roughly consistent over a century, despite the boom in watersports. The only logical conclusion from this is that in real terms interactions are becoming rarer, not more common.

A research paper written by ASAF’s John West in 2011 found a decrease in the average annual fatality rate from a peak of 3.4 per year in the 1930s to an average of 1.1 per year for the past two decades. The number of fatal attacks relative to the number of total attacks per decade has also decreased over this period, from 45% in the 1930s to 10% in the past decade. Consistently with that decline in fatalities, the acknowledged culprit in most lethal encounters, the white shark, has declined in numbers in Australian waters by as much as 50-70 per cent over the past 50 years.

This needs to be considered in light of the Surf Lifesaving Australia estimate that 100,000,000 beach visitations occur every year in Australia (anecdotal evidence suggests 99,000,000 of these take place at Snapper). We have more than 35,000 kilometres of coastline and nearly 12,000 beaches. Across those vast numbers, even our alarming rate of nearly 300 drownings per annum starts to look tiny. And an average of less than one shark fatality pales into insignificance. Rock fishermen in Australia are known to drown at a rate of 7.8 per annum, whilst divers die underwater at an average of 23 per year. 

WITHIN WEEKS, TIME MAGAZINE RAN A WHITE SHARK ON THEIR COVER

AND COINED THE TERM "SUMMER OF THE SHARK".

Speaking of shark-human encounters in binary and sensationalist terms does a disservice to both the humans involved – they’re reduced to being “victims” – and to the sharks. Let’s start with the number-one bad guy, and the default locus of blame for all fatalities, the white shark. Could it be that these creatures offer more fasciation than just as “mindless eating machines”, to quote Finding Nemo’s Bruce? The character’s namesake, Dr Barry Bruce, is part of a world-renowned team of scientists at the CSIRO, supported by fundraising bodies such as Whitetag, who are doing work on white sharks. You mightn’t have heard of them because they get barely any airtime in the media.

The depth of our ignorance about white sharks is surprising, according to Bruce (the scientist, not the shark). “Even basic notions, such as how large they actually grow, how long they live, how many are out there, and where they go to breed and pup (give birth), remain a mystery.”

White sharks are oviphagous (literally, ‘in utero egg eaters’: pups eat one another in the womb), and they give birth to 2-14 live pups, each up to 1.5m in length. As those pups grow, Dr Bruce’s team do their best to follow their progress.

Recent work by the team, along with the Port Stephens-Great Lakes Marine Park Authority has revealed that in early summer each year, juvenile white sharks aggregate off Port Stephens, north of Newcastle, along a fifty-kilometre alleyway between the shallow surf zone and an offshore reef. It’s a place where the East Australian current produces an abundance of pelagic fish life, a diet favoured by juvenile whites before they transition to eating other prey including marine mammals. Importantly for beachgoers around Port Stephens, until white sharks grow to around ten feet long, there’s not enough mineralised cartilage in their jaws to withstand the stresses of biting large prey such as humans.

Since they began their work there in 2007, the team have tagged dozens of juveniles in this alleyway, building up a large database of knowledge about the movements and habits of this population of sharks. They bolt a satellite tag to the shark’s dorsal fin, which records dates and times, water temperatures, depths and light levels. Each time the shark surfaces, the tag’s store of data is beamed via satellite to Hobart for analysis. During the same operation, scientist Russ Bradford surgically implants an acoustic pinger in the shark’s abdomen. If a tagged shark swims within 500 metres of a submerged acoustic listening post (dozens of which are now in place around the coast), the device transmits a unique numerical sequence to identify the shark.

The tags tell the scientists that the growing sharks leave the Port Stephens nursery area in mid-summer, reappearing in Victoria’s Corner Inlet, where they remain until the weather cools. After that, the collective science ends. Where they go next is up to the individual animal: tags have been tracked as far away as New Zealand, and up both our west and east coasts as far as Exmouth and Rockhampton respectively.

Illustration by Lani Paxton

Illustration by Lani Paxton

For those working in the field, the widespread resistance to talking responsibly about sharks is a serious impediment to getting things done.

Amanda Elizabeth is a marine scientist who’s making a documentary about shark conservation called Shark Wars.  The decision to adopt such a combative title was a deliberate reference to the way perceptions of sharks are manipulated: “I decided to call it Shark Wars as there is a lot of controversy surrounding sharks and, in particular, shark culling,” she told Surfing World. “People seem to be divided into two very separate groups: either for or against, and it seems extremely difficult to change someone’s point of view on the issue. People are very passionate about it, and even those who may not even utilise the ocean seem very heavily invested in their opinions.”

As a scientist, Amanda’s well-positioned to read the raw research on sharks. “Mostly I read journal articles written by scientists who’ve undertaken extensive research, although I do try to keep abreast of what the national and international media are saying,” she said. “A lot gets sensationalised or may be third hand information, so it’s important to take some of what you read with a pinch of salt. I can see how it would be tempting to (elaborate) on a story to grab the attention of the reader. Unfortunately this does little to help the truth of the situation and the conservation of sharks.” 

On the flipside, Amanda cites an article by Fiona Adolph in WA’sScoop magazine last December as an example of journalism that was “quite extensive and offered some solutions”. Ms Adolph’s article, which is still online, is indeed well-researched, and not all of her findings make for comfortable reading. For example, she quotes a 2014 study into shark bite risk by the UWA’s Department of Emergency Medicine, which “rated the danger of swimming in shallow water within 25m of the shore during summer as “very low” – well below the risk of other common recreational activities in WA. However, surfing or diving offshore in the south-west during winter and spring carries a fatal shark bite risk up to 10 times that of a serious or fatal recreational cycling crash.”

Every time someone is injured by a shark in Australian waters, the tone of the coverage reverts to type, descending into a welter of trauma porn for the fascinated revulsion of the masses. “Shark attacks make big headlines,” according to Amanda Elizabeth, “and I think it all comes back to a fear of what we don’t understand. Shark attacks are low occurrence/ high consequence events. The human drama makes it easy for the media to cash in: the classic ‘good vs evil’ story that captures audiences.”

Threatened species spokesperson with the Australian Marine Conservation Society, Tooni Mahto, is another who rides the setbacks in public discourse after shark attacks. “Every time a human is killed it’s obviously a tragedy,” she told SW. “Which is why there’s a focus on keeping humans and sharks a safe distance from each other. But every time there’s a fatality, more arguments (arise) that the population of white sharks must be increasing, backed up by anecdotes from fishers about seeing loads of them around. None of that is supported by science: one of the main reasons the WA shark cull was shut down was scientific analysis of white shark numbers. The conclusion was that this species has not recovered, is still under threat in Australian and international waters, and even limited killing has an impact.

“Subsequent to the WA shark cull, there’s been elevated reporting of sharks, which is fine from a public safety point of view, but sightings are also followed by media reports of sharks ‘stalking’, ‘lurking’ or ‘hanging around’ inshore areas. In particular, the presence of a large, tagged white shark that frequented an area off Warnbro Beach sparked not only action from WA fisheries but also media interest. It’s great to see interest in sharks’ natural behaviour of swimming in the sea, but not when it’s attached to some kind of devious intention to hunt and kill humans.

“We’re basically still dealing with a big PR issue for sharks,” said Ms Mahto. “The ‘Jaws effect’ is still playing out in the media, perpetuated by politicians. It’s incredibly unhelpful in having a decent conversation around shark conservation.”

The “Jaws Effect” she speaks of is a term coined by Dr Chris Neff of UTS, who wrote an academic paper last year looking at the ways that shark encounters are described in the media, and consequently how they’re dealt with by politicians. Dr Neff, a lecturer in public policy, examined the media coverage against shark hunt policies implemented by WA state governments between 2000 and 2014 and found striking similarities to the 1975 Spielberg classic, Jaws. The research identified  the “Jaws effect” as a political device based on three themes from the film: the intentionality of sharks, the perception that all human-shark incidences are fatal and the idea that killing “the shark” is the only solution to save our dangling legs.

Dr Neff makes the point that a storm of emotion generated by media coverage of tragedies, especially when they occur in “spates” or “clusters”, will feed directly into policy, making the two institutions – media and politics – interdependent in fanning the controversy. “Clusters of highly emotional events are often the focus of policy responses across a number of issue domains. Multiple house fires, school shootings…highway deaths, hurricanes, shark bites or truck crashes within a certain area or timeframe may become policy issues.

“(It’s) a worrying style of policymaking where widely-known fiction can be used to navigate the attribution of blame and to prescribe policy responses,” he said of his research. Interestingly, Dr Neff also found that “the concept of a ‘rogue’ shark has its roots in Australia. Australian surgeon and shark-bite researcher Victor Coppleson suggested the behaviour of rogue sharks in the 1950s.”


On 6 November 2000, a white shark bit two swimmers at Perth’s busiest metropolitan beach, Cottesloe. One of the swimmers, Ken Crew, died on the beach among his rescuers. These events created national concern, community fear and intense media scrutiny. People drew parallels to Jaws almost immediately. One of Crew’s rescuers was reported in The Australian as saying, “It was like the movie Jaws’. The Herald–Sun reported after the incident, under the heading Blue Water, White Death: ‘Not since 1975, when the blockbuster Jaws was released, have the monsters of the deep been so feared.”

The author who, inadvertently or otherwise, sits at the centre of this myth-making is Peter Benchley. He felt compelled to write an open letter to Australians after the tragedy, about the futility of a cull: “This was not a rogue shark, tantalised by the taste of human flesh and bound now to kill and kill again. Such creatures do not exist, despite what you might have derived from Jaws.”

FEAR BOOSTS THE RATINGS, SELLS THE PAPER AND DRAWS EYEBALLS TO SOCIAL MEDIA;

THUS THE UGLY TRUISM, "IF IT BLEEDS, IT LEADS."

At various times in the last 20 years or so, southwest Western Australia, South Australia, western Victoria and now northern New South Wales have all been declared the shark attack capital of Australia. In response to suggestions that encounters need to be kept in perspective, that statistics do reveal anomalies, clumps and clusters, the locals in each instance have said, “You don’t know how it is here, we’re dealing with these things every day.”

It’s a reasonable expression of a deep-seated fear, and implicitly it says, “You, on your couch in Melbourne/Sydney/Brisbane, are not entitled to pontificate to us.” Astute media outlets, although likely to be based safely on dry land in capital cities, will align themselves with the locals while talking to the urbanites, a handy duality that gets them mass audience and yet positions them as quivering in the boardshorts alongside the frightened locals. The prevailing approach to shark encounters in the Australian media is doing nothing to advance either conservation or human safety. And the events of this summer have represented yet another missed opportunity.  

Every death and injury by shark bite is a tragedy, but caring about the future of the animal involved does not equate to unconcern about human suffering. If we can learn anything from the fates of terrestrial apex predators – thylacines, Sumatran tigers, lions – it is that raising a lynch mob is the surest road to extinction.

READ MORE FEATURES BY JOCK SERONG

Subscribe to Surfing World
12 Issues delivered to your door for just $99.95 (Aus)

Tags: surfing world magazine , jock serong , sharks , shark , media (create Alert from these tags)

blog comments powered by Disqus
Features
Swell Alert: A Powerful South and SSE groundswell is about to Rock the East Coast

Swell Alert: A Powerful South and SSE groundswell is about to Rock the East Coast

Get ready, the East Coast is about to rumble.

18 Jan 2021
A Ripping New Rage Vid, Pete Mel's Stoke Is Everyone's Stoke, and Maverick's on Skis? What?

A Ripping New Rage Vid, Pete Mel's Stoke Is Everyone's Stoke, and Maverick's on Skis? What?

This Week In Surfing: Ten Things from Surfing & the Internet on the Week That Was January 15 2021

15 Jan 2021
RIP: Gordon James Philipson (1938-2021)

RIP: Gordon James Philipson (1938-2021)

Long-serving and legendary stalwart of Australian and Queensland surfing passes away at 82

14 Jan 2021
Recent

A Ripping New Rage Vid, Pete Mel's Stoke Is Everyone's Stoke, and Maverick's on Skis? What?

This Week In Surfing: Ten Things from Surfing & the Internet on the Week That Was January 15 2021

15 Jan 2021
RIP: Gordon James Philipson (1938-2021)

RIP: Gordon James Philipson (1938-2021)

14 Jan 2021
Photos and Highlights From the '21 Burleigh Single Fin Festival

Photos and Highlights From the '21 Burleigh Single Fin Festival

4 13 Jan 2021
Margaret River Starts 2021 on the Pump

Margaret River Starts 2021 on the Pump

12 Jan 2021
WSL's Horror Run Continues, Mason Finally Meets the Reef, and Waves Glorious Waves

WSL's Horror Run Continues, Mason Finally Meets the Reef, and Waves Glorious Waves

1 9 Jan 2021
Latest News

A Ripping New Rage Vid, Pete Mel's Stoke Is Everyone's Stoke, and Maverick's on Skis? What?

This Week In Surfing: Ten Things from Surfing & the Internet on the Week That Was January 15 2021

RIP: Gordon James Philipson (1938-2021)

Long-serving and legendary stalwart of Australian and Queensland surfing passes away at 82

Margaret River Starts 2021 on the Pump

One of the better summer swells in recent memory hits the Southwest

WSL's Horror Run Continues, Mason Finally Meets the Reef, and Waves Glorious Waves

This Week In Surfing: Ten Things from Surfing & the Internet on the Week That Was January 8 2021

Popular This Week

A Ripping New Rage Vid, Pete Mel's Stoke Is Everyone's Stoke, and Maverick's on Skis? What?

This Week In Surfing: Ten Things from Surfing & the Internet on the Week That Was January 15 2021

Padang Comes to Life as Late Season Swell hits Bali

Golden hour at perfect Padang Padang - it's been a good week to be in Bali... Photo: Childs

Go to Top