Dr. Christopher Neff is a Lecturer in Public Policy in the Department of Government at the University of Sydney. He completed the first PhD on the “Politics of Shark Attacks” and has been published in Marine Policy, Coastal Management and the Journal of Homosexuality.
Jaws is a great horror movie. Personally, it’s one of my favorites. Politically, it kills me. While it has certainly inspired generations of marine biologists, researchers and social scientists (like me) since its release in 1975, it has also served as the most powerful vehicle to advance public fear of sharks in modern history. These two different implications become problematic because while sharks make for great movies, movies make for lousy public policy. When tragic shark bite incidents occur, there is a classic Jaws-esque analogy just waiting to be made. And sometimes the media circus turns into policy.
I recently wrote an article called “The Jaws Effect” for the Australian Journal of Political Science comparing policymaking in Western Australia and the movie Jaws. While, we see some of these comparisons in real-time the reason it is important to study this formally is because these moments can tell us about the tensions between politicians and scientists that lead to myth-based policies.
The American Elasmobranch Society is the world’s oldest and largest professional association of shark and ray scientists
The American Elasmobranch Society, the world’s largest professional organization of shark and ray scientists, has issued a resolution calling on the Associated Press Stylebook and the Reuters Style Guide to retire the phrase “shark attack” in favor of a more accurate (and less inflammatory) wording that is scaled to represent real risk and outcomes. The AP Stylebook and Reuters Style Guides are reference guides for journalists and editors which focus on, among other things, reducing the usage of inaccurate and outdated terminology. The latest AP Stylebook, for example, had more than 90 new or updated entries which include encouraging journalists and editors to a stop using terms like “illegal immigrant“, “ethnic cleansing” and “homophobia”.
“Shark scientists in the United States and around the world have great respect for the integrity and reporting of the Associated Press and Reuters. We hope they will act on this recommendation and update their style guides to ensure that the public gets the most accurate information in the reporting of these incidents,” said Lara Ferry, President of the American Elasmobranch Society, who sent a formal letter to the AP Stylebook and Reuters Style Guide.
Currently, although “shark attack” is associated with an image of a large shark and a human fatality, the phrase is used by the media as a catch-all to describe any encounter between a human and a shark, even those that don’t result in any physical contact whatsoever. Fully 38% of reported “shark attacks” in New South Wales, Australia from 1970-2009 resulted in no injury whatsoever. This is misleading and facilitates a perception among the public that sharks are more dangerous than they really are, a perception which has negatively impacted shark conservation and management policy.
“The accuracy in media reporting of shark bites and different human-shark interactions is especially important during the kinds of tragic periods we have seen this summer. The public deserves the best information to make sure there is no confusion between very serious and fatal shark bites and minor incidents,” said Christopher Neff, a Ph.D. student at Sydney University.