The shark is one of media’s most reliable monsters. Every year, newspapers, magazines, and television news shows leap to every shark sighting and shark attack report. And, why not? One of their primary roles is to produce ratings and sell magazines for their companies. The vision of a “man-eating” shark never fails to grab attention.
Time Magazine declared 2001 the “Summer of the Shark.” The media frenzy began when a bull shark bit the arm off an 8-yr old boy playing in the waters off Pensacola, Florida. Thereafter, any encounter with a shark, no matter how insignificant, made prime time news.
Only 10 out of the 500 species of sharks have been implicated in incidents with humans. According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), in 2006, there were 62 confirmed cases of unprovoked shark attacks on humans worldwide. Of these attacks, only 4 proved to be fatal, and none were in the United States.
You have a better chance of dying by a lightning strike, or a dog bite. More children are killed while playing in a beach sand hole that collapses or while being inadvertently left in a closed car on a hot day, than there are people killed by a shark attack. A 2007 New York Times article sums it up pretty well by saying you have double the chance of dying from a coconut falling on your head.
But, these facts can’t compete with money. Or our morbid sense of thrill. The shark made it to the cover of Time magazine not because sharks are a real problem, but because it was a slow-news summer.
Peter Benchley, the author of “Jaws,” the novel which became the Steven Spielberg Hollywood film production about a fictional Great White, once said, “We don't just fear our predators, we are transfixed by them. In a deeply tribal way, we love our monsters.” It should be noted that some years after he wrote Jaws, Benchley became a highly committed shark conservationist and advocate.
Unfortunately, sharks are being wiped out by other big-money—the shark fin industry. We don’t yet see public outcry to save the sharks, perhaps because the media-created image of sharks makes it difficult for many people to understand why sharks are worth saving.
Shark attacks and fatalities: International Shark Attack File
Collapsing sand holes: Dr. Bradley Maron, The New England Journal of Medicine (June 2007)
Dog attack statistics: National Canine Research Foundation
Child hyperthermia: Hyperthermia Deaths of Children in Vehicles , Jan Null, Adjunct Professor of Meteorology, San Francisco State University, October 31, 2007
Lightning data: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service
Hunting incidents data: International Hunter Education Association