Shark Week To Trigger Media Feeding Frenzy July 31

July 20, 2011

Even news media need to go to the beach sometimes. Every summer, at about this time, shark stories start popping up on the cable nets. Whether or not a shark attack on some hapless swimmer sparks the stories, they spawn like media grunion. You might as well get ready to deal with it, especially if you live near some part of the 12,400-mile U.S. coastline where sharks can be found.

Like Steven Spielberg, tabloid media can grab huge audiences by manipulating fear (remember "Jaws," the movie that made him a mogul). But journalists who want to give their audiences a fair representation of the complex reality might note that humans are far more of a threat to sharks than sharks are to humans — statistically speaking.

The timing is inevitable. More U.S. citizens are in the water during late July and early August than at any other time of year — more exposure usually means more anxiety, if not more attacks. But it is also the time of year when the Discovery network spends a whole week whipping up enthusiasm over sharks. This year, Discovery's Shark Week starts July 31.

In any single year — or on a long-term average — the number of fatalities from shark attacks is infinitesimal compared to those from other hazards like dog attacks, collapsing sand holes, do-it-yourself projects, or toilet seats. This does not stop some cable nets from making the danger seem like a horror movie trailer — a triumph of anecdote over data.

Because of shark-finning, fishing bycatch, overfishing, and other human practices, some shark species are seriously endangered.

Worldwide, the greatest threat may be finning — cutting the dorsal fin off of a caught shark and throwing it back into the sea to die. In her new book, Demon Fish, Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin notes that the prime force driving the market for fins is the status associated with serving shark fin soup in traditional Chinese culture. She says the soup is a "scam" because the fins themselves are tasteless, stringy, and full of mercury.

Federal law puts severe restrictions on finning — and some loopholes were closed by the Shark Conservation Act, signed into law by President Obama January 4, 2011. But that law only affects shark products landed in the US, and finning continues with little slack in the fisheries of many other countries. Some US states, like Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, and California, have mounted efforts to outlaw shark fin sales or selling of the soup in restaurants.

Shark Week may once have been an effort to relive "Jaws" — but in more recent years Discovery has used the event as a chance to educate the public about sharks, build awareness of the threats they face, and explain the need to conserve them.