Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Sharks, the media, and risk perception

This post is a little off topic, but still about something relevant to human-wildlife conflict: people's perception of high (or perceived high) conflict species. In this case, sharks. This post will talk about how people's negative perception of sharks is likely exacerbated by the media, and why that could be leading us to unnecessarily kill sharks in the name of safety. This is definitely not a new concept, but one that needs more air time.

2001: The Summer of the Shark. Possibly the beginning of
sensationalist shark reporting?

 Image Problem
Sharks are a great example of a species with a bad public image. While they no doubt have many people trying to protect them, those people are a relatively small percentage of the population, and they aren't always the ones calling the shots when it comes to shark management. Plenty of times those in charge (government officials) are people with regular fears, who are as susceptible to anti-shark hype as anyone. And sometimes they make policy decisions to pander to people who are fearful, as was seen in 2014 in Australia.
Citizens protesting the WA shark cull
Source: Australian Tenders

The 2014 shark cull in Australia did not go well. They caught none of their most common offender (white sharks), killed dozens of sharks that did nothing wrong, and pissed off quite a few people. Watching interviews with the folks in charge, and reading their quotes in articles, I noticed one topic reared its head quite a few times: tourists. It seems the real inspiration for the cull was to bring back tourism, which had dropped due to hype surrounding shark attacks. The Australian government wanted to give tourists the perception that Australia was trying to keep them safe, because fear of sharks was resulting in economic losses. On top of this, Australia, South Africa, and Hong Kong all employ shark nets. Which are exactly what they sound like, and they kill way more animals yearly than that Australian shark cull did. Ultimately, most things kill more people than sharks-- so people have to be really afraid of sharks if governments are spending millions on killing them (while admitting they're putting sharks at risk) just to keep those sweet, sweet tourist dollars rolling in.
So, where does this fear come from? Part of it, no doubt, comes from things like this:
Screenshot of Google search results

Source: Screenshot of
Screenshot from

This is a small snippet of articles found about a guy who wasn't even
bitten by a shark.
...and the list goes on. I recognize the problem isn't as one-dimensional as being solely caused by the media. Sharks are inherently "scary" to us, but the media is exacerbating this.  This article from Big Think suggests we're so afraid of shark attacks because they have three characteristics of a risk that incite fear in us. According to Big Think, we fear risks that that a) involve pain and suffering, b) involve a degree uncertainty and powerlessness (like, sharks being underwater, where we can't see them, and consequently don’t know to defend ourselves), and c) we are made aware of. Shark attacks satisfy all of those requirements. Those first two characteristics can’t be helped. Shark attacks will always be painful and unpredictable. That last characteristic is where I want to focus, because it’s the only thing we have control over. How we become aware of these shark attacks is through the media; and the media not only has the power to decide which stories we know about, it also to tell us how we should feel about them.

Some fear mongering info about Bull sharks from's
list of Australia's deadliest animals
Media Hype
Browsing the internet you'll find an incredible number of shark "attack" news stories. Pretty much any time a shark bites (or even goes near) someone several to dozens of news stories will follow. So, though the number of bites per year is very low (and people are aware the numbers are low), the media presence is very, very high-- ultimately keeping sharks in people’s minds more than they should be. Then, there are Most Deadly lists, like this one, and this one. And of course, Shark Week, which seems to incite people to fear sharks, while being in awe of them. For example, on their video page I've come across a video portraying someone happily diving with sharks, while the overdubbed narrator speaks as if the diver is risking their life; and another video titled "Great White Nearly Bites Guy's Head Off." Why does such negative portrayal of sharks matter? For one, again, people are constantly thinking about sharks— because their presence in the media demands it. But secondly, such media encourages people to think of them as a threat—which is obvious when sharks and their actions are described with terms such as "cold-blooded killer" or "gruesome cannibal attack" or "horrifyingly dangerous." All of this likely increases people's risk perception about sharks. Risk perception that's already heightened because our instincts already demand that we fear them. 
Risk perception is a huge topic in psychology that I'm not going to go deep into. There's a Wikipedia page for that. In short it "is the subjective assessment of the probability of a specified type of accident happening and how concerned we are with the consequences." Increased risk perception can lead to increased risk reducing behavior, as was found in this study of the effects of the media on risk perception of Mad Cow Disease. In that study risk reducing behaviors simply meant not consuming beef. In the case of sharks, risk reducing behavior amounts to doing things that will reduce the likelihood us encountering sharks. Sadly that usually doesn't include us staying out of the water, but things like culling and protective nets that often kill sharks. I will state here that I have no proof that all of the fear mongering about sharks leads to activity that harms them, but I do think it's highly likely there's a connection between perception and how we manage sharks. The Australian government pushed for a cull to bring tourists back. But those tourists were afraid and left for a reason- and I'd bet a large part of that had to do with their fears being stoked by constant reporting about shark attacks.
To add insult to injury, last year some writers on news sites about the Australian culls were promoting culling themselves, something usually best saved for professionals armed with stats, or personal blogs (where one can go willy-nilly with whatever opinion they have). Here are two example articles: Shark Culling vs. Shark Attacks: has our admiration gone too far? and When Sharks are Eating People, It's Time to Cull. The former article goes as far as stating: "If you oppose culling, that's fine. Knock yourself out. Go swimming with them... But spare me the faux sympathy next time someone is killed. These deaths are not necessary." I expected to find that article in the "opinion" section but it's categorized as "news.”
Man (not actually) attacked by shark.
All in all, I think this issue of media hype and negative portrayal of sharks huge a problem. And I think it is safe to hold the media responsible for some of the anti-shark sentiment that circulates. There's even evidence that the some media sources have deliberately reported incorrect information, which can be found at this link (watch the video). On that page is the story of a fisherman whose foot was injured by a shark he was trying to unhook, and how the media butchered the story even after he came forward and tried to correct the incorrect information. But that's far from the only instance of that happening. Scores of stories claim to be about “shark attacks” when no attack happened, like this one where a shark bites a paddleboard. This over-reporting and incorrect reporting of incidents only serve as unnecessary black marks on the record of a species with an already bad reputation.
So, how do we fix this problem?
Change terminology: One suggestion is to change the terminology used when reporting encounters with sharks. If any reporters are reading this, this means, don't report something as an "attack" if nobody was attacked. Or, better yet, don't report anything if nobody was attacked. There's a whole paper on this from 2013 which can be found here; the suggestions of which clearly haven't been adopted by the news media (yet).
Media workshops: Another option is something that's currently going on in India regarding the news reporting of human-leopard conflict. Conservationists think the inflammatory nature of reporting on the subject could be hurting the situation, so some have taken to holding workshops for reporters to educate them on the realities of conflict with leopards, and to inspire more responsible reporting. Though on this huge, world-wide scale it would be harder to pull off, every little bit helps.
You? Again, every little bit helps. I think, from now on, when I see news sources reporting things as attacks that aren't attacks, I might write them and express that I think it's irresponsible, care to join me? Or, put other ideas in the comments.
Thanks for reading!

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