Great White Lies: Sharks and the Dangers of Media Sensationalism

Christopher Pepin-Neff sinks his teeth into false media narratives surrounding shark bites, and says that the real danger isn’t the sharks, but the emotion-fuelled policies that follow.

Image by Syd Sujuaan, via Unsplash

SEI editor Liberty Lawson talks with Dr Pepin-Neff ahead of the April 16 launch of his new book, Flaws: Shark Bites and Emotional Public Policymaking.

Over the past few years, there seems to have been an increase in attention surrounding measures to protect citizens from sharks. Do you think incidents really are on the rise or is this simply a function of increased media saturation, increasing coastal populations and political hyperbole?

There are three phenomena that are at work here. First, while these incidents are incredibly rare, there have been more human-shark interactions in the past decade. With population growth along coastlines, better wetsuits (more time in the water), and more watersports, there are more shark bites. However, I would say that there are also more non-injurious interactions. Dr. Bob Hueter and I did an analysis in 2013 of all reported shark ‘attacks’ in the past 30 years and found that 39% of them did not have an injury, so we really are re-defining our relationship with sharks beyond the shark bite incident. Finally, the media covering these events makes them seem more common than they are. This is called the ‘availability heuristic’. Human-shark interactions were all there the whole time, but you just didn’t notice, and because reporting is international, hardly a week goes by without a shark bite or incident somewhere in the world.      

What are the typical government responses in the wake of shark related injuries?

The typical government response to shark bites is what I call in my book Flaws ‘policy as therapy’, where the government tries to provide psychological relief to the public rather than real reductions in risk. This includes lethal measures such as setting drumlines, beach net trials, and hunting ‘the’ shark, as well as non-lethal methods such as banning eco-shark diving in completely different areas, aerial patrols, subsidies for electronic deterrents, and SMART drumlines. Most of the time, these are designed to mitigate fear, but there are also non-lethal scientific measures that do actually reduce risk, like shark tagging, shark spotters, shark barriers, ocean pools, wave pools, and improvements in education and technology. Swimming between the flags creates noise that scares sharks off, in the right weather conditions drones can spot sharks, and if a shark is just curious then electronic deterrents can zap sharks away. But each of these things is highly dependent on the conditions, so when we talk about something ‘working’ it is all relative. Which is why myths are used to convince people that something ‘really, really works’ – like shark nets. With shark nets, 40% of the sharks that are caught in the net are caught on the beach side (the swimmer side) trying to get out. So to say that they ‘work’ at preventing shark bites is stretching it.

These measures often have lethal consequences for the sharks themselves, which has significant negative ecological repercussions. Why is important for us to protect shark populations? And ultimately, do you think that it is possible for humans to exist alongside wild shark populations?

 The first reason it is important to stop lethal shark culls is that they simply do not work. The second reason is because sharks are an essential part of a story about marine area recovery. Native populations often tell this story better than I can. In Hawaii for instance, sharks are revered because the presence of sharks means the presence of fish and fish are life for many communities. The finning or killing of sharks has an ecosystem wide effect as well because they are an apex predator. In marine biology (and I should note that I’m a social scientist here), my friends refer to taking an apex predator out of its natural ecosystem as a ‘trophic cascade’. This is a very bad word. We don’t want trophic cascades that destabilise ecosystems and alter the natural order of things. One example of this was seen in South Africa, where heavy culling of white sharks led to the rise of the ‘meso predator’ dusky shark and there were more human-shark interactions with dusky sharks. So one thing leads to the next. Killing sharks has consequences.

And yes, I do think it is possible to live alongside sharks. I wouldn’t use the word ‘harmony’ with a wild animal, but public education and a healthy respect for the ocean as the wild (and sharks as fish in their domain) creates a new opportunity for the human-shark relationship. I always say “we are in the way, not on the menu” and so if we can learn how to be in the way less, then we can live alongside sharks in a better way.

We often hear claims that shark bites may be provoked by a lack of natural food sources, and that overfishing is driving sharks out of pelagic ecosystems and closer to populated coastlines. Either way, this isn’t the fault of the sharks themselves. Even the fact that we call it a shark ‘attack’ implies a sort of malicious intent, rather than evoking the natural trophic chain, and it denies the fact that as humans, we are the ones making the choice to spend time in the habitat of the shark.

How can we reconcile with this rhetoric of blame and responsibility?

I would say two things. First, people are not numbers, no matter what we call shark bites. A fatality is a fatality so I am not trying to sugar coat the terrible and tragic events that people and communities experience. The second point is that language always matters. In the case of shark “attack” I think this is language that should not be used. It does infer intent, when we have no idea. And it is used for events that have no injury. So I have really tried to educate around the need to come up with new terms to describe human shark interactions. Or put another way, my colleague Bob Hueter and I point out that not all shark ‘attacks’ are created equal.

I do not think anyone is to blame for shark bites, just like I don’t think anyone is to blame for lightning strikes. These are ungovernable acts of nature and I don’t think anyone is at fault. This is mirrored in the research I have done in communities affected by shark bites. In Ballina and Perth, neither area blamed the shark, in fact, they didn’t think the blame should be directed towards anyone.

How does the political and discursive response to shark bites reinforce those negative associations? And how can we start to change that narrative?

I think shark ‘attack’ is even worse than portraying sharks as the enemy. This language erases the truth behind the event and replaces it with a perceived one dimensional story of a very serious or fatal event, and where there is a villain to be punished and a victim to be saved. This takes the meaning of the event away from the people actually involved in the human-shark interaction. Maybe the person does think sharks are the enemy. That should be reported. But more often, there is a story about being in the wrong place at the wrong time and the shark is not seen as the problem. But instead of giving the person involved an opportunity to tell their story, the term shark ‘attacks’ erases and replaces that with a Hollywood style narrative.

I think we change the narrative when we change the words. Bob Hueter and I suggest four new labels: shark sighting, shark encounter, shark bite and fatal shark bite. These provide different narratives based on the outcome of an incident. But the second step is getting the media to reform itself and use new language – or the language of those affected by these incidents. I think the media has a lot to pay for here because fear-mongering to sell papers following tragic events is a terrible thing to do.    

This certainly isn’t the only topic that governments use to their advantage as a source of emotion-laden rhetoric to inform short-term appeals to voters. In contemporary Australia, where else are we at risk of ‘falling prey’, if you will pardon the pun, to this kind of emotional policy making?

Oh this is a good question. I think we see a lot of highly emotional policymaking in Australia. Here are several I can think of off the top of my head: the lock out laws, pill testing, livestock exports to Indonesia, super-trawler ban, greyhounds, tainted strawberries, and the Tampa incident. The motivating factor in these policy responses is political penalties. A politician anticipates that they may feel the heat, so they act in one way or another. And they do it quickly. There is a sense with these events (which are bipartisan) that they need to dis-aggregate a problem that matters to the public so the penalty is diluted. Emotions are therefore a public resource that can push an issue over the edge or be tamped down to allow a politician to survive. This kind of policymaking is usually done against the advice of scientists or experts and it can have a legacy that carries on over time.

Flaws: Shark Bites and Emotional Public Policymaking by Dr. Christopher Pepin-Neff, will be launched on April 16, 6pm at SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium. This event is sponsored by the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney, Department of Government and International Relations, School of Social and Political Sciences, and the SEA LIFE Trust.

More information and registration here.

Christopher Pepin-Neff is a Senior Lecturer in Public Policy in the Department of Government and International Relations. His research interests include theories of the policy process, policy analysis, the role of policy entrepreneurs, and comparative public policy. More specifically, his research looks at policymaking regarding emotional issues such as LGBTQI politics, mass shootings, and the “politics of shark attacks”. He has published articles in the Australian Journal of Political Science, Environmental Studies and Sciences, the Journal of Homosexuality, Marine Policy, and Coastal Management. His research has been noted in The New York Times, Washington Post, Time magazine, The Economist, USA Today and New Scientist magazine.