Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Scientists Urge Media Care in Reporting Shark "Attacks"

The American Elasmobranch Society (AES), the leading society of shark researchers in the U.S., is calling upon the Associated Press, Reuters and other media outlets to update their guidelines for editors and reporters to support more accurate stories on shark-human interactions.

The term "shark attack" is typically used by the media, government officials and the public to describe almost any kind of human-shark interaction - even those where no contact or injury occurs between humans and sharks.

To promote better understanding of these shark incidents, AES passed a resolution at their recent annual conference urging media outlets "to adopt a labeling typology for the multiples types of interactions and outcomes associated with shark-human interactions, thereby resisting use of the term 'attack' without scientific basis and providing more accurate reporting."

AES President Lara Ferry stated, "Shark scientists in the U.S. and around the world have great respect for the integrity and reporting of the Associated Press and Reuters. We hope they will act on this recommendation and update their style guides to ensure that the public gets the most accurate information in the reporting of these incidents."

A letter from Ferry has been sent to the editors of the Associated Press Style Book and Reuters General Reference Guide. The AP updates its Stylebook annually, with the most recent print edition released on May 29, 2013. In their announcement, the AP noted "more than 90 new or updated entries."

The AES resolution was introduced jointly by Christopher Neff, a doctoral candidate from the University of Sydney in Australia, and Dr. Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla. Hueter stated, "When we call every incident between a shark and a human an 'attack,' regardless of the size of the shark or the outcome, we mislead the public and misinform them about the actual risks involved."

Neff stated, "Scientists have played a leading role in educating the public and media about human-shark interactions for more than 90 years. This decision sets a new standard for accuracy in reporting by asking editors and reporters to refrain from shark 'attack' language without proper scientific support and to call incidents with no injury by another name."

Neff and Hueter note that indiscriminate use of the the term "shark attack" can create a perception of premeditated crimes, rather than rare acts of nature. This terminology can create unnecessary fear and hatred of sharks - important predators needed for healthy ocean ecosystems. The researchers point out that most shark species grow to less than 3 feet long, and most rarely, if ever, come into contact with humans. When they do, serious bites are the extremely rare exception rather than the rule.

A recent study by Neff and Hueter published in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences found that 38 percent of shark "attacks" reported by the government of New South Wales in Australia over 30 years (1979-2009) resulted in no injury. Neff and Hueter offer a new classification of shark incidents for the media, government agencies and the public that includes:

Shark sightings: cases where sharks are sighted close to people but there is no injury

Shark encounters: cases where sharks make contact with surfboards, kayaks, boats and other watercraft but there is no injury

Shark bites: cases where shark bites occur and the injuries are non-fatal

Fatal shark bites: cases where shark bites occur and the injuries result in a fatality

A full copy of the Neff-Hueter report is available at: http://rd.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13412-013-0107-2


Lara Ferry, Ph.D.
President of the American Elasmobranch Society
Lara.Ferry@asu.edu • 602 543 2817