Shark Words: The Good, Bad and the Wrong

Posted on October 21, 2015
Written by: Samantha Whitcraft

MO_blue5.jpgPhoto: The most abundant shark in the world’s oceans, the Blue Shark is also the most heavily fished pelagic, or open ocean, shark and is IUCN-classified as Near Threatened. Credit: Mary O’Malley


The media often tend to overuse certain words — “exclusive,” “breaking” and “unbiased” among them. When words are overused, they are then often also misused, and as readers we may become immune to their true meaning. Is that interview with a rising starlet really “exclusive”? She won’t be discussing her next film with any other reporters? Is the news coverage really “unbiased”? Or does the network influence the choice of stories and the resulting, biased spin?

Media coverage of sharks has fallen into a similar pattern. Some of the most over- and misused words in “shark journalism” include “monster,” “shark-infested” and “man-eater.”  

How and why are these words misused? Let’s take them one at a time:

Monster; n. Originally: a mythical creature that is part animal and part human, or combines elements of two or more animal forms, and is frequently of great size and ferocious appearance. Later, more generally: any imaginary creature that is large, ugly and frightening.  

Clearly, sharks are neither mythical nor part human, so we can assume that they are being described, routinely, as “large, ugly, and frightening.” Yet anyone who has seen a shark in the wild or any of the many beautiful wildlife portraits of one could certainly argue that they are not ugly. In fact, many shark species — white, blue and silky sharks, for example — are sought out by divers precisely because of their grace and beauty. So the media may use the word “monster” to emphasize a shark’s large size or some other aspect of the animal that is considered frightening. But this use is irresponsible because the general public equates the word “monster” with something dark and dangerous from our collective nightmares. Ironically, sharks may have become monsters to us precisely because of the way the media describe them. In the future, perhaps responsible journalists will simply describe the size and species of the shark or sharks in question and focus on the facts of the story, skipping the inappropriate moniker of “monster.” 

Infest/Infested; v. to spread or swarm in or over in a troublesome manner. 

The phrase “shark-infested waters” is so commonly and negatively used that it is included as one of two sample usages in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary next to, “a slum infested with crime” and “…the house was infested with ants.” We tend to think of an infestation as something that doesn’t belong or is out of balance with nature because there are too many of whatever organism is spreading or swarming. The opposite is true of sharks; there are certainly not too many of them and they are not out of balance with nature except when they are going extinct. In fact, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) leading shark scientists classify the Great Hammerhead and Scalloped Hammerhead sharks as globally endangered, while Smooth Hammerheads, Great White, Basking and Oceanic Whitetip sharks as globally vulnerable to extinction. Two species of Makos and three species of Threshers are similarly classified.

Many local populations of coastal sharks are also under threat from overfishing and habitat loss. In some places their absence is noted by both fishermen and divers as impacting both tourism and fishing economies. In fact, where there are more sharks, their presence is increasingly understood to be more positive than negative. For example, in 2007, 73,000 shark-diver interactions generated approximately USD$78 million in ecotourism revenue for The Bahamas. In 2011, understanding that its waters were “infested” with valuable sharks, the Bahamian government announced that all commercial shark fishing would be prohibited throughout the approximately 630,000 square kilometers of their national waters. Today, The Bahamas is a prime destination for shark enthusiasts, divers, photographers and researchers.

So, when media outlets refer to “shark-infested” waters, they may mean to suggest that there are sharks present in the area and that the very fact of their presence may be alarming to some. More accurately, the area in question could simply be described as shark habitat.

Man-eater; n. one that has or is thought to have an appetite for human flesh. 

Again, this term is now so closely associated with sharks, through use in the media, that the Merriam-Webster dictionary gives the following example: an animal (such as a shark or a tiger) that kills and eats people (emphasis added). There is zero evidence to suggest that sharks have an appetite for human flesh. Ecologically and evolutionarily, it is highly improbable that a fully marine species would evolve to prey on (i.e. develop an appetite for) a terrestrial species. The rate of encounter between the two would be insufficient for such a predator-prey relationship to evolve.

As for individual sharks becoming man-eaters, the myth of such a “rogue” shark ended with the more current cultural understanding that the iconic book and film, “Jaws” were fiction. As for the rare incidents when a shark actually eats a person, those tragic events do not happen because the victim is human; it happens because, in that moment, the shark perceives the victim as prey, whether due to ship disaster, injury, murky water or other compounding factors. There is no such thing as a shark with an appetite for human flesh, a man-eating shark.

The media have a challenge set before them when writing about sharks. Instead of calling a beautiful shark a monster, describe the species in question and give an estimated size. When covering a story about areas where sharks have been seen or are known to frequent, call it shark habitat instead of infested waters. And, at the very least, never call a shark a man-eater, because they are not.


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