|A Caribbean reef shark at North Dry Rocks, Key Largo. Photo: Pete Kontakos via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).
TipSheet: Covering Sharks in Shark Week's Wake — You're Gonna Need a Bigger Meme
By Joseph A. Davis
It’s summer. Evidence on the environment beat may be that the world is doomed, but millions of Americans are frolicking in the surf. So what are you going to write about?
Don’t think. Just turn on cable TV’s nonstop shark attack shows and it’s as predictable as … summer. Sharks. You’re going to write about sharks.
Why it matters
Sharks matter because they are essential to keeping ocean ecosystems in balance.
They are also cool because they started evolving around 450 million years ago, which makes them older than trees.
And evolutionarily, they have been very successful. There are more than 500 species of sharks.
The time horizon of sharks in the media goes back even before 1975, when “Jaws” came out. It was Steven Spielberg’s first blockbuster. Spielberg may be a great storyteller — but he is in the entertainment industry, not journalism. And while he didn’t invent the horror movie, he did understand that fear sells tickets.
One consequence of “Jaws” was that in July 1988, the Discovery Channel first programmed “Shark Week.” That was 34 years ago, and it became the longest-running cable event in history.
The ancestors tell us that the earliest “Shark Week” efforts actually included biology and conservation. But shark-attack purveyors eventually discovered that fear sells ads too and eventually evolved toward exploitation and chum like “Sharknado” (a 2013 TV movie) and “The Meg” (a 2018 movie).
National Geographic (which was sold to Rupert Murdoch before it was sold to Disney) has now taken up its own full summer cable programming stream devoted to sharks. You might argue that some episodes actually have some constructive content. But it seems like even this channel has shows with taglines like “When Sharks Attack.”
The reason that exploitable public fear about sharks comes in July and August is because that is when more people are out swimming in the ocean.
By watching TV, you wouldn’t know that shark
attacks on humans are extremely rare. …
People are more likely to be killed by lightning.
But by watching TV, you wouldn’t know that shark attacks on humans are extremely rare. For many years, there has been a thing called the Shark Attack File, which compares the risk of shark attack to other things. For instance, people are more likely to be killed by lightning than by a shark. At the beach, people are more likely to be killed by a sand hole collapsing than by a shark attack. Humans are waaay more likely to be bitten by a dog or a gerbil than a shark.
When it comes to risk, humans are millions of times more of a risk to sharks than sharks are to humans. According to one estimate, humans kill 100 million sharks a year.
- What is the relation between ocean conservation and shark conservation (habitat, temperature, acidity, oxygen, food)? How does this work for marine waters in your area?
- How do beaches in your area keep people safe in the presence of sharks?
- What is the current U.S. law on shark finning? What are its limits and loopholes?
- What is the law on shark finning and fin trade in your state?
- Are any restaurants in your area offering shark fin soup?
- NOAA Fisheries: An office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that is a nexus for federal shark conservation efforts.
- Shark Trust: A U.K.-based charity dedicated to shark and ray conservation.
- Shark Stewards: A global membership-based shark conservation group.
- Coral Reef Alliance: A diver-focused, geographically far-flung group that advocates for shark conservation.
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 28. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.