Updated: Mar 29
People learn about science in many different ways: through documentaries, books, newspapers, magazines, museums, the news, and even adverts and movies. Recently this list has also expanded to include internet sources, like scientific websites, online news sites, social media or blogs ... Some sources are reputable, some are biased and some simply fabricate stories in order to boost sales or traffic. Many people struggle to separate fact from fiction and emotions can really be stoked surrounding scientific issues and how people feel about these different issues can have a huge impact on whether they reject or support scientific research. For example, when we look at how the media has presented sharks, we see a history of extremely biased reporting, which has warped how the general public think about sharks. Not only is this unethical and unfair on sharks, it has had serious implications for their conservation...
Sharks in the Media
When you look at how the media has presented sharks in their reporting, a clear pattern emerges; sharks are generally only in the news when they are involved in violence upon a human, or discussed in terms of commercial value. When sharks appear in movies or television shows, they are often presented as a horror movie monster (Neff, 2015; Peschak, 2016; Ostrovski et al, 2021).
In a study conducted in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, members of the public were asked to complete a questionnaire, detailing their opinions on sharks and their media coverage. The study found that the majority of people asked, believed that the media has been responsible for creating a negative perception of sharks. The interviewees stated that they believed the media has stoked the fear of sharks and presented them in a negative light (Simpfendorfer et al, 2011; Ostrovski et al, 2021). But why would they do this? What is in it for them?
A History of Fear
Before nature documentaries or the internet, scarcely did the vast majority of the general public have any interactions with sharks or know much about them at all. However, sharks really hit the media hard upon the release of Peter Bletchley's Jaws in 1974 and the subsequent Spielberg film in 1975. Almost overnight, sharks were thrust onto everyone's radar and transformed from a distant, mysterious ocean-dweller, into a monstrous, horror-movie villain. To learn more you can check out The Jaws Effect.
As sharks became more feared, the news media exploited the trend by stoking this fear, and this in turn made sharks more desirable for horror movies, and the cycle went round and around. Basically scary sharks sold newspapers and tickets at the box office... "Galeophobia" (fear of sharks) was becoming trendy... The media were selling it and we are buying it (Simpfendorfer et al, 2011; Neff, 2015; Peschak, 2016; Ostrovski et al, 2021).
Actions Have Consequences
On top of being unethical, the problem with this is that the media is not just reactionary to world events, but also has the power to drive situations forwards. How the news media, movies and television present certain issues can really affect how people feel about something and can change their behaviour - shifting which products they buy, which websites they visit and even how they vote. With sharks, this can limit public support for their conservation and subsequently affect policy decisions (Shiffman et al, 2020; Ostrovski et al, 2021).
"Popular press coverage not only reflects current public opinion on a topic, but has the ability to shape and influence current public opinion, with potentially large implications for public policy change"
A Biased Viewpoint
In an analysis of Australian and US media coverage, scientists discovered that out of 300 media reports between 2000 and 2010, more than half of the news articles discussed shark attacks, where only 11% talked about shark conservation. The researchers concluded that the media had focused much more on the risk sharks pose to human as opposed to the opposite (Muter et al, 2012).
Similarly, a scientific study analysing the global media coverage of sharks between 2008–2017, found that within the 1800+ media reports, a reference to the Jaws franchise was mentioned in 7.5% of articles about sharks, and that fear of sharks generally was mentioned in 15.9% of articles, even those which were discussing shark conservation! Whatsmore, the scientists discovered that there were many incidents where facts reported were wrong and many media outlets were repeatedly biased. They concluded that the media had not communicated clearly or accurately why sharks are threatened, how large their declines have been, which species are most at risk of extinction or what solutions there are to tackle the problem, and they stated that the media "contribute[s] to widespread public misunderstanding" (Shiffman et al, 2020).
"Key issues surrounding shark conservation are not being communicated accurately to the public in the popular press."
- Shiffman et al, 2020
If people are fearful of an animal and believe it poses a threat to human welfare, it can be very challenging to make them feel concerned about the survival of that species (Simpfendorfer et al, 2011; Shiffman et al, 2020; Ostrovski et al, 2021).
Shark populations have been declining for decades! According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 29.8% of all species of sharks are classified as either vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered, and are therefore threatened with extinction in the wild. To learn more you can check out Will 300+ Species of Sharks Go Extinct?
These declines have occurred because sharks are threatened by multiple different human activities. In recent years, the media has begun to report on shark fishing and finning as a major driver of population declines. However, whilst it is hopeful that the media seems to be coming around to the idea of raising public concern over shark overexploitation, these articles are often inaccurate and alarmist. For example, they often use the terms 'fishing' and 'finning' interchangeably, which is inaccurate and can be very confusing (Shiffman & Hammerschlag, 2016; Shiffman et al, 2020).
They also often advocate for total shark fishing bans and do not report about sustainable shark fisheries, which are actually thought to be a better conservation method for sharks over blanket bans. To learn more you can check out Can Shark Fishing Be Sustainable? (Shiffman & Hammerschlag, 2016; Shiffman et al, 2020).
These recent articles also do not adequately discuss the other threats to sharks, including recreational fishing, pollution and climate change. And they neglect to tackle the problem they have contributed to creating; the negative public perception of sharks (Shiffman et al, 2020).
A New Hope
Due to their biased media coverage and poor scientific communication, the general public are only just starting to become aware of the plight of sharks, and many people continue to not care or even think, "Good riddance". If we are to have any chance of saving all these endangered species from extinction, it will be critical that shark scientists reach out to the media and to the public directly, to ensure that the science surrounding sharks is communicated properly. If conservation is to be driven forwards it will require public support, which starts with education - we must ensure people understand why sharks are threatened and which conservation methods are best to save them. If the media and scientists could work together to spread this message, we would have a much better chance of changing public opinion and pressuring governments to take steps forwards for shark conservation. Because, really, isn't saving species from extinction more important than the sales of newspapers!?
You can get your news about sharks from reputable sources by:
Following legitimate research groups online, such as the Bimini Shark Lab, who have a fantastic YouTube channel,
Learning about sharks directly from scientists working for their conservation, by signing up for the Shark Trust's brilliant quarterly magazine,
Reaching out directly to scientists who's work you have read about in the news, to ask them questions. They are a very friendly bunch and are often very happy to receive public interest in their work. So google the scientist and get in touch! You might even make a really cool new friend!
Muter BA, Gore M, Gledhill KS, Lamont C & Huveneers C (2012). Australian and U.S. news media portrayal of sharks and their conservation. Conservation Biology, 27:1, 187–196. Access online.
Neff, C (2015). The Jaws effect: how movie narratives are used to influence policy responses to shark bites in Western Australia. Australian Journal of Political Science, 50:1, 114–127. Access online.
Ostrovski RL, Violante GM, de Brito MR, Valentin JL & Vianna M (2021). The media paradox: inuence on human shark perceptions and potential conservation impacts. Ethnobiology and Conservation, 10:12. Access online.
Peschak, T (2006). Sharks and shark bite in the media. In: Nel, D.C. & Peschak, T.P. (Eds.) Finding a balance: White shark conservation and recreational safety in the inshore waters of Cape Town, South Africa. Cape Town: World Wildlife Foundation.
Shiffman DS, Bittick SJ, Cashion MS, Colla SR, Coristine LE, Derrick DH, Gow EA, Macdonald CC, O’Ferrall MM, Orobko M, Pollom RA, Provencher J & Dulvy NK (2020). Inaccurate and biased global media coverage underlies public misunderstanding of shark
conservation threats and solutions. iScience, 23, 101205. Access online.
Shiffman DS & Hammerschlag N (2016). Preferred conservation policies of shark researchers. Conservation Biology, 30, 805–815. Access online.
Simpfendorfer CA, Heupel MR White WT & Dulvy NK (2011). The importance of research and public opinion to conservation management of sharks and rays: a synthesis. Marine and Freshwater Research, 62, 518–527. Access online.
By Sophie A. Maycock for SharkSpeak.