Sharks and the media: how should we report?

By Angela Heathcote 4 March 2019
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The media is regularly held responsible for the fear people have for sharks and what’s been called ‘emotional’ or ‘reactionary’ policy making. Here, we chat to the experts about what has to change.

MAULED, ATTACKED, stalked: these are just a few of the words experts say the media should stop using when referring to incidents of ‘shark bites’ – the preferred term.

Dr Christopher Pepin-Neff, an expert in public policy at the University of Sydney has been fascinated by the language we use to describe shark bites since completing his Masters and PhD.

“You’d have a shark attack story and it might have been about a kayak or boat,” Christopher says, “but it was being portrayed as something aggressive. This got me concerned.”

In 2013, Christopher and shark biologist Robert Hueter published their paper on the reclassification of human-shark interactions.

The two analysed the 2009 government shark report, which included incidents in Avalon, NSW, and Sydney Harbour, and found that 38 per cent of reported shark attacks had no injury.

“It’s a lot like that phrase ‘if you’re a hammer, everything’s a nail’,” Christopher says, adding that, “not all incidents with sharks are equal.”

Historical reportage on sharks

In 1902, the ban on swimming at the beach during the day was lifted and it quickly became a popular pastime. With more people in the water, this meant there were more opportunities for shark bites.

Reportage of these incidents was more diverse than it is today, and included phrases such as ‘shark bite’, ‘shark accident’ and ‘shark attack’.

That was until 1933, when Sydney surgeon Sir Victor Coppleson published Shark Attacks in Australian Waters in the Medical Journal of Australia, which Christopher says sought to “reconcile the competing international theories” about shark bites.

Before publication, Victor had begun corresponding with American natural history author Horace Mazet about the threat of shark rabies and the fact that shark bites were considered uncommon in Australia.

According to Christopher, the motivations behind this correspondence and the subsequent paper didn’t have malicious intent.

“They were trying to help,” he says. “It was about convincing people that sharks can attack. They thought it was a public safety concern.”.

“As people were going in the ocean more these incidents were happening more and it was being attributed to things like barracuda or other fish, so there needed to be greater clarification.”

Ever since the publication of Victor’s paper, sharks bites being described as attacks has become more popular and “man-killer” has entered the dialogue more regularly.

According to an article by Australian Geographic’s Shark Editor-at-Large Dr Blake Chapman, arguably the most significant influence on our perception of shark attacks came later on in the 20th century with the release of Jaws.

“It created a memorable mental picture of a shark attack,” Blake writes. And it’s now what “repetitive, highly descriptive” media reports replicate now.

Shark bites in the Whitsundays

Daryl McPhee, an expert on unprovoked shark bites from Bond University, described the media reportage around the Whitsundays shark bites (in 2018) as “a perfect example of what not to do”.

“Everything that could go wrong in terms of media reporting happened in that situation,” he says. “Local reports became global, and that will undoubtedly be blamed for an impact on tourism, exacerbating the situation.”

The experts interviewed for Australian Geographic’s article, The truth behind the Whitsundays encounters, also noted that public outrage in response to any news article about sharks is strong, which could subsequently lead to reactionary methods to control shark attacks, such as drum lines.

They also identified several inconsistencies in the reportage and an overall lack of detail. Many of the articles written about the event included images of popular tourist destinations of the Whitsundays where the attack did not take place.

“Most media reports about sharks are predicated on a lie,” Christopher says. “The first lie is calling it a ‘shark attack’ when that’s not the case. And the other is the combination of words and pictures.”

In his research, Christopher has witnessed the impact the media can have on policy.

“In Ballina and Byron Bay The Daily Telegraph ran multiple front page stories in 2015 pushing Premier Baird to act and it finally had the effect of introducing a trial of shark nets in NSW,” he says.

The issue with ‘attack’

Christopher says that the problem with the word attack is that it implies intention; regardless that it’s impossible to understand what an animal’s intention is.

Australian Geographic asked Christopher to analyse the following headlines:

Title: WA man flown to hospital after shark bite

Christopher says: This is good.

Title: Aggressive shark activity prompts organisers to move date of major international surfing competition

Christopher says: I don’t like the word aggressive because they are not intending to be aggressive. It’s suggesting intent and they’re waiting for surfers in the water when they are actually just swimming through the ocean.

Title: Crisis talks to be held over horror Whitsundays shark attacks

Christopher says: Again, attack implies intent. ‘Crisis talks’ is also incorrect. It’s not a national emergency. These are terrible events but we should keep them in context relative to other crises. The use of horror is fear mongering about something serious.

Title: Horror shark attacks and fatality statistics show how deadly Australia’s beaches can be

Christopher says: I can already see what they’re going to do with this. They’ll list shark bites and frequency and intentionality.

Title: Sharks bigger and fatter and numbers out of control in North Queensland, fisher says

Christopher says: It’s very difficult to determine shark populations and this must be done scientifically and not through anecdote.

Title: Shark attack: ‘smashed from underneath’ in Byron Bay

Christopher says: Again, it’s attributing intent, the intent being the ‘smashing’ anecdote. It’s a clickbait headline and a one-dimensional story. We don’t know the intent.

Sighting, encounter, bite and fatal bite

Together, Christopher and Robert have devised four categories in which most shark incidents fit: shark sighting, shark encounter, shark bite and fatal shark bite.

“These four categories are based on outcomes, not presumption or emotion,” Christopher says. “Those are based on the outcome of events. It answers, what happened? We’re not trying to derive the intent of the animal, because that’s impossible.”

While Christopher understands that shark-human interactions are newsworthy, he says stories don’t need to be sensationalised.

“We need language that accurately reports on the events, where they happened and who’s involved, but we also need to be clear that not all shark bites are equal.

“People are going to read the story if you clickbait it or not. People read shark stories, there’s no need to over sensationalise. Non-sensational shark stories can still make money.”