Case Studies in Earth & Environmental Science
Jaws 2001: Shark Attacks & the Media.
I realize that you are only going to have 4 days to read the booklet about
shark attacks. When you first get it, you might think I've gone overboard
(pun slightly intended), as it's fairly girthy. Please do not be put-off by
this. I can explain.
About 40 pages of the "Background" section consists of just a single
figure or graph per page. It's meant to give an impression both of broad overall
trends and the manner in which the experts have tried to present this case
to a popular audience. We will NOT be statistically analyzing and poring over
every last little one.... unless someone insists!
Likewise, the "Popular Articles 2002" section will at first look
kind of unfriendly because right in the middle is a +/- 20-page transcript
of a NMFS / NOAA open-media scientific press conference. It's there because
some key participants from earlier articles show up again and clarify / qualify
their ideas; more importantly, there are popular media follow-up articles
that respond directly to it from a very wide spectrum of political opinions.
Not only was it relevant, but it's also just too close to the structure of
our course for me to justify leaving it out. So if you're short on time, definitely
read that and its follow-ups. Just a suggestion.
Also, there are gross victim pictures in the first article.
Questions to Ponder and Discuss
- Did the "Summer of the Shark" add up to anything, or was it merely
a slow news season? What were some of the reasons given to explain the attacks--and
how did other authors respond to them? When some of these ideas (for instance,
Dr. Hueter's hypothesis about bull sharks) were presented repeatedly over
time and in many different sources, did their implied level of likelihood
ever change? What effect might this have had on public confidence?
- What are the terms and phrases commonly used to describe sharks and their
habitats in these pieces? What emotional resonance would they have with readers.
- Of the human fascination (morbid and otherwise) with sharks, E.O.Wilson
once wrote that "in a very real, tribal sense, we love our monsters."
Terry McCarthy, in the Time reading, called it "part fancy, part
dread." Discuss what sharks mean to humans and how they have been viewed
over time. Did we read any suggestions that public perceptions of sharks might
have been altered by the coverage of these attacks? How did some writers try
to present sharks in the most positive possible light, in spite of all unpleasant
facts and fears? Did any make an effort to describe the life of a shark under
ordinary circumstances (i.e., when not attacking people)? And does this invite
the risk of being labeled 'insensitive'?
- How have some of these authors used different methods and "voices"
to make similar arguments? In particular, compare "Jaws of Government"
in National Review and "Attack of the Shark Lobby" in Slate
with "Biting Back" in New Scientist and "Protect Sharks?"
in the NYTimes.
- Now discuss the common idea raised by those three articles. What implications
might it have for conservation policy?
- What are the motives of people like Sean Paige ("Jaws of Government,"
"Shark Spin Soup", Q&A section of May 21,2002 NOAA news conference)?
What image of scientific professionals are they trying to promote? How does
this resonate with the suggestions of creationists in our earlier case study?
- Comment on the different ways that the May 2002 press conference was interpreted
and presented in the media.
- Did there seem to be a uniform, consensus opinion among professionals about
the underlying causes of shark attacks? How did non-scientist dissenters treat
and use the scientific data when making their own arguments? In both regards,
how does this resemble earlier case studies?
- How have the shark researchers blended the pursuit of science with environmental
advocacy? How could this color their treatment in the media? When else have
we seen instances of scientists who were also crusaders for a particular idea--and
how did that help or hinder their message in the media?
- Was it necessary and appropriate for shark researchers to discuss conservation
and hunting issues when asked about shark attacks? By doing so, do you think
they gave anti-shark interests an easier target? If they had not added that
element to the discussion, would the topic have quieted down sooner--and would
that have been better for the sharks?
- The I.S.A.F. added disclaimers to certain sets of attack data, but not others.
Why? How was this used against them? Is it a fair criticism?
- How do these articles use statistics, and to what end? Is this line of argument
convincing and useful, and were some better at it than others? Do you think
the average reader would take comfort from these sorts of arguments--or is
this an issue to which people do not react rationally?
- Speaking of statistics, why do you think some articles chose the comparative
examples that they did? What could be an undesired result of shifting public
fears to other animals or forces of nature; would it be the same if comparative
statistics were used for machines and diseases instead?
- Shark reporting dropped markedly after 9/11. How much is environmental coverage
influenced by other issues in the news? What seems to be the threshold at
which people will not want to hear anymore? Think of the media coverage of
each successive anthrax exposure in late 2001--compared to the coverage of
shark attacks months earlier, can we take a position on the public's understanding
of relative risk and its desire for "bad news"?
- How do sharks detect their prey? What are some explanations for why they
attack people? What are the typical results after they attack people?
- Which areas of the world have the most shark attacks? Which areas of the
U.S.? How has the apparent number of annual shark attacks changed over the
past century? What are some possible reasons for this?
- Do human behavior patterns influence the apparent number of shark attacks?
How can we tell?
- What kinds of sharks are thought to be the most dangerous? Are these the
same species that were implicated in the 2001 attacks?
- What was happening to shark fisheries throughout the 1980s and early 1990s?
What changed to make their situation more precarious? What was done to aid
- What role, if any, might that have played in facilitating the attacks of
2001? What were the criticisms of shark protection, and were they all scientifically
- What biological feature did shark researchers point out to counteract the
suggestion that shark protection had led to increased attacks?
Policy and Science Background information:
Woolgar, Justin D.; Cliff, Geremy; Nair, Raj; Hafez, Hany; and John V. Robbs.
2001. Shark Attack: Review of 86 Consecutive Cases. Journal of Trauma
(50), pp. 887-891.
Shark Attack File
- Shark attacks in perspective.
- 2001 worldwide shark attack summary.
- How, when, & where sharks attack.
- Comparison with the number of attacks made by the American alligator.
- Comparison with the number of biting injuries occurring annually in NYC
--Comparison with the number of lightning strikes of humans and resulting
- Comparison with the number of injuries associated with home-improvement
- Year 2000 USA beach injuries and fatalities.
- Statistics for the worldwide locations with the highest shark attack activity
- Statistics for the USA locations with the highest shark attack activity
since 1990 --Worldwide shark attack fatality rate 1900-1999.
- Graphs of worldwide trends in shark attacks over the past century.
- Unprovoked attacks for world and U.S.A.
- Unprovoked attacks for Florida (including Volusia County).
- Unprovoked attacks for Florida (not including Volusia County).
- Graphs of shark attacks vs. victim's activity--worldwide.
- Florida victim activity 1900-1999.
- 1882-2001 map of Florida's confirmed unprovoked shark attacks.
- Graphs of shark attacks vs. population growth over the past decade.
- Florida annual tourists vs shark attacks 1990-2001.
- Florida drownings and shark attack fatalities 1992-2000.
- Florida shark attacks by time of day 1882-2001.
- Florida shark attacks by month 1882-2001.
- Identified attacking species in Florida waters.
- Reducing the risk.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 1997. Atlantic shark fisheries background
& summary statement. In Federal Register vol. 62, no. 97, pp. 27585-27586.
May 20, 1997.
Popular Articles: 2001 (Contemporary analysis)
McCarthy, Terry. 2001. Summer of the Shark: Why can't we be friends? Time,
July 30, 2001. Cover & pp. 34-41.
Paige, Sean. 2001. The
Jaws of Government. National Review Online, August 8, 2001.
Shark-Feeding dives causing attacks. The Straits Times, August 21, 2001,
The Statistical Shark. The New York Times, September 6, 2001, p. A22.
Saletan, William. 2001. Attack of
the Shark Lobby. Slate.com, September 7, 2001.
Meyer, Dick. 2001. Beware
of Land Sharks. CBSNews.com, September 7, 2001.
Ballingrud, David. 2001. 'Most dangerous shark' one to fear. St. Petersburg
Times, September 10, 2001, p. 1A.
Broad, William J. 2001. Protect sharks? Attacks fuel old argument. The New
York Times, September 11, 2001, pp. F1 and F7.
Klinkenberg, Jeff. 2001. The Sharkman's summer. St. Petersburg Times,
September 13, 2001, p. 1D.
Popular Articles: 2002 (Retrospective analysis; responses to scientific
'Summer of the Shark' in 2001 More Hype Than Fact, Say Numbers From International
Shark Attack File. AScribe Newswire, February 18, 2002.
LeBlanc, Pamela. 2002. Afraid of sharks? That fear has no teeth; stinging insects
kill more. Cox News Service, May 20, 2002.
Full transcript of Shark
Attack News Conference held by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
and SeaGrant, May 21, 2002.
Mitchell, Steve. 2002. Experts: 'People to blame for shark attacks.' United
Press International, May 21, 2002.
Paige, Sean. 2002. Shark
Spin Soup. National Review Online, June 7, 2002.
ISAF--Notes on "Sharks
in Perspective: From Fear to Fascination" conference. June 12- 14,
- Conference background & overview.
- Media relations
Williams, Caroline. 2002. Biting Back. New Scientist (175) p. 3434.
July 27, 2002.
DeVise, Daniel. 2002. Summer of Shark hype leaves scars. The Miami Herald,
August 12, 2002, p
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