Media and sharks: a lesson learned

Posted on March 28, 2009
Written by: Shark Savers

I was asked to join the crew from Shark Diver Magazine for a shoot at Tiger Beach in the beginning of March. The Today Show was doing a piece on diving with sharks and the pitch seemed like a great opportunity to share shark conservation with a new audience.

The concept was for the host to dive with sharks for the first time while describing it through an underwater communications system. It would show people that diving with sharks is not only safe, but truly and amazing experience. Our group was asked to join because of our experience in the water and love for sharks.

I have been approached to be a talking head for other programs and I am always very cautious about getting involved. I debated with myself about this particular one and decided that the American public needs to see how incredible these animals are.

The host and producer both seemed extremely excited to take part in the adventure and I immediately felt good about my decision. I sat with each man and chatted about shark conservation and general shark information on several occasions during the 3 days I spent with them. I was also interviewed for the program and spoke about my passion for sharks and how fortunate we were to be getting in the water with them.

They each expressed their desire to dive with sharks again and the energy seemed really positive. The sharks were incredible. We had 7 tiger sharks on one dive and nearly 30 lemon sharks. The swimming pool like environment makes it ideal for video and photography. The location is the epitome of Caribbean diving and we spent 2 full days with the sharks in perfect conditions.

On Monday March 16, 2009 the show aired at 7:00 am for all of America to see. I happened to be on Grand Bahama and had access to a television. I woke up early excited to see the 5 minute piece (considered long for a news piece). I shared my excitement with friends and family, encouraging them to watch what I thought was going to be a great success for sharks.

I sat and watched, mouth agape, as footage of shark attacks flashed on the screen. This was not the idea we were pitched, this was not what we had shared with these people. Words were twisted, footage that had nothing to do with our trip was interwoven and collectively the conservation message was missed.

Again the media, despite the true experience, spun the story to fit the stereotypical story of sharks. I was overwhelmed with emotion and immediately sought advice from friends and colleagues in the shark world. How had this gotten so horribly twisted? How had the television crew done such a 180 about the sharks? What happened?

Tiger shark checks out the camera.
Photo: Jillian Morris

My response from most people was like an echo, one after the other. No matter what, the media has the ability to twist a story however they see fit. People want monsters and the media gives it to them. I knew this happened, but had never experienced it first hand.

I decided to learn from this and use it as a tool to push harder for shark awareness. The Saturday before the show aired Old Bahama Bay Marina had signed on to be Shark Free, meaning no sharks can be killed and strung up at the marina. This project is to encourage catch and release if sharks must be caught at all. It was a huge victory, but was belittled by the horrific images that aired. One giant step forward and two steps back.

I honestly believe there will be a day when mainstream news shares a story about sharks in a positive manner. As I fumbled through an array of emotions I began to focus my energy onto expressing my frustrations with the host. I sent him a long and thoughtful email asking if he realized how lucky he had been to travel to such and incredible place.

Divers travel from all over the world and spend a lot of money to dive with the sharks of Tiger Beach. I asked why he hadn't aired the show the way we saw fit, highlighting the need for awareness and education. I explained how devastating the piece was and how disappointed I was to be involved, rather than the pride I was hoping to feel for helping sharks.

His response was brief and explained that he disagreed with my assessment and that the show received raved reviews. Of course it did!!!! People love monsters. War, sex, politics and sharks are the most popular issues on television.

In the end I really hope that the host will dive with sharks again. I hope he will realize how lucky he was and what a great opportunity he passed up by not sending a more positive message. Sharks need the everyday person; the average television viewer needs the correct information. Television channels, producers and hosts need to dare to tell the real story, instead of feeding into the viscous cycle of media frenzy.