Sharks: Are they the monsters or are we?

BY CAITLIN O’REILLY

Word Count: 2,099

 

The beach has a long association with Australian identity. With over 30,000 km of coastline and 10,000 beaches, enjoying time at the beach on a summer’s day has come to epitomise Australian culture. However, the sharks that also inhabit these waters, and the attacks that can sometimes come with them, have become a problematic issue for the public and politicians alike, and this is most definitely reflected in the Australian mainstream media. Despite living in the ocean and being a vital element to their ecosystem, sharks are often represented in the media as monsters, with the media cultivating an image of sharks as lurking creatures that prey on unwitting swimmers and surfers.

 

The hysteria in the media that surrounds shark sightings and shark attacks also plays a part in shaping the general public’s view that shark attacks are a lot more common than they actually are. According to the Australian Shark Attack File, kept by researchers at Sydney’s Taronga Conservation Society, there have been 1300 shark attacks in Australia since records began in 1791, and 232 of them have been fatal. All up, about one-quarter of shark attacks are fatal, making the average fatal attack of one person per year. Therefore, an encounter with a shark in Australia is still very rare, however the mainstream media tend to emphasise the risks of sharks rather than the reverse.

 

The September 2016 shark attack of Cooper Allen, a 17-year-old Ballina surfer, proved to be a catalyst for a host of articles surrounding sharks, shark nets and the possibilities of tagging or culling. This pattern in the media is in line with many other shark attacks, especially when the attacks prove to be fatal, such as in the reporting of the fatal attacks on Sam Kellet (8th February 2014) and Daniel Smith (15th December 2015).

 

Following shark attacks; the media regularly follows with an arguably systematic response of hard-news stories on the attacks, as well as community and government response. Views news articles on the subject will often follow, further highlighting the issue of sharks in the media. In order to demonstrate this, I will analyse a range of hard-news articles from several media outlets including The Sydney Morning Herald, ABC News, The Australian, and The Daily Telegraph, followed by views news articles from these same outlets.

 

First, let’s take a look at ABC News’ hard-news story, “Ballina Shark Attack: Teenage Surfer bitten at Lighthouse Beach” from 26 September, 2016 one of the stories which followed Cooper Allen’s encounter with a shark. ABC News uses factual claims and appeals to authority in the article, however underlying claims that shark attacks have become far too regular and beaches need further protection from them, can still be seen through the language employed throughout the piece and the attributed quotes used. ABC News describes the Ballina region as being victim to a “spate of shark attacks”; later writing that it was the “fourth serious shark attack along the one kilometre stretch of beach in less than two years”. Use of descriptors such as “spate” and “serious” add to the tone of severity. As well as this, ambiguously writing “in less than two years” creates a sense of emergency, overall, inferring that shark attacks are common, rather than noting the attacks at Lighthouse Beach should be regarded as an exception to the safe waters found around the country, as seen in Australian Shark Attack File’s research and findings.

 

As well as this, the language ABC News employs about the seriousness of Cooper’s attack differs greatly from the quoted statements from Cooper’s father, Ned Allen, who is quoted as saying “He’s all good. He’ll be fine.” Allen’s blasé tone contrasts against the majority of the article, which could be seen as problematic as it suggests that ABC News’ description and recount of the event may have made the event appear more traumatic than it actually was.

 

Interestingly, although ABC News positions Cooper Allen as the passive victim of the shark throughout the article, in the lead of the piece ABC News writes:

“A 17-year-old surfer, who once rejected the need for shark nets, is in hospital after being bitten on the upper-thigh while surfing at Lighthouse Beach at Ballina, on the New South Wales far north coast.”

ABC News positions Allen as the active subject in the lead, and does not explicitly mention the shark. The effect that this creates is that Cooper is foolish for rejecting the need for shark nets and therefore the dangers of sharks when they are so apparent.

 

In The Australian’s October 25 2016 article, “Another attack: Mike Baird hastens shark net rollout”, written by Mark Schliebs and Kylar Louisskian, graphic images of shark attacks and quoted sources are used to add to the image that there are a large amount of shark attacks and this needs to be treated with immediacy by governments.

Appendix I
Appendix I

The article recounts the “close call” surfer Jade Fitzpartick had with a shark on a beach near Byron Bay on the 24th of October 2016. Through including a graphic image of Mr Fitzpatrick’s injury (see Appendix I), the writers reinforce the dangers of sharks to readers, including a shocking image to assist in persuading audiences to agree with their underlying perspective that sharks are dangerous and something must be done to counter the issue. This view is supported by quotes used by Schliebs and Louisskian throughout the article. For example, a quote from Fitzpatrick states:

“I’m one of the lucky ones. There is people around here that have lost limbs and lost lives.’’

Although Schliebs and Louisskian acknowledge environmentalists on the north-coast “hotly-oppose” the shark nets being installed, this may not give a clear indication of the amount of opposition that the shark nets face on a local level. The article fails to acknowledge that both Shire Mayors and the Local MP of the Ballina region oppose nets and that there was a large-scale protest on the 22nd of October against the nets (ABC News, McKenzie, “Shark Nets: Hundreads rally on Lighthouse Beach in Ballina against installation plans, 23 October 2016). Overall, this demonstrates that what journalists leave out of articles can be as important as what they choose to include, as without this further context, opposition to the nets has been belittled and generalised in the article.

 

After analysing the news coverage of sharks, it appears articles about sharks and the dangers of them are more often written in the warmer months. Presumably, this is due to the probability of shark attacks being increased, as there are more people in the water. An article published in The Daily Telegraph on the 2nd of January, 2016 entitled “Sydney swimmers diving with death, blissfully unaware that harbour waters are brimming with hundreds of dangerous bull sharks” was written by Taylor Auerbach, uses extremely evocative language to shape a predatory image of sharks and instil fear within the reader. The lead of the story opens with:

 

BEWARE — turns out sharks like going to the same beaches, at the same time, as you.”

The emphasis and capitalisation of ‘beware’ emphasises to readers that sharks are most definitely something they should be afraid of, and infers it is shocking that sharks can be found in their natural environment of the ocean.

 
 

In addition to this, Auerbach describes the sharks as “notoriously dangerous”, “cold-blooded predators”, and full of “aggression and power” whilst contrasting swimmers as “blissfully unaware locals diving with death”. This emotive language and use of hyperbole immediately articulates the perspective of the author, placing the reader in a position where they are able to evoke a strong emotional response, either for or against the writer’s opinion. Despite the fact that this is presented as a hark-news article, it is clear the attitudinal positioning of the audience is created via explicit evaluation, with Auerbach’s use of strong evaluative terms reiterating her explicit opinion of sharks to the audience.

Appendix II
Appendix II

The Daily Telegraph’s reporting of sharks is often littered with language that could be argued as fear mongering and purposely alarming. Even though articles such as this are presented as hard-news and not opinion, The Daily Telegraph has an established and clear agenda throughout the piece, creating a hard-news/ views-news hybrid, whereby ‘news’ of sharks in the warm summer waters of Sydney Harbour is presented, however it is done so in a very subjective fashion. This is also seen through The Daily Telegraph’s 13 August 2015 front page entitled “Jaw Kidding” (see Appendix II). The writer uses a pun on the words ‘you’re’ and ‘jaw’, as the word ‘jaw’ has often been associated with the threatening image of sharks, drawing attention their many teeth and casts back to the 1975 film, ‘Jaws’, a piece of popular culture also responsible for shaping the negative image of sharks. The Daily Telegraph uses this pun to reflect their outrage that The Greens Party are campaigning to have “killer” sharks protected and for non-lethal control measures to be used. In addition to this, The Daily Telegraph presents a close-up of the shark, mouth open for readers to observe the shark’s rows of teeth, covered in blood. This sinister choice of image is used to align audiences with The Daily Telegraph’s opinion of sharks being inherently dangerous and that it is preposterous for anyone to want to protect them.

Supplementing the hard-news articles, I will now look at the views-journalism presented by two different media outlets on sharks and surrounding issues. “How on earth did sharks become the new dolphin?” written by Gary Liddell is an evaluative article that relies heavily on opinion, published in The Sydney Morning Herald on October 7 2016, again in the wake of the shark attack on Cooper Allen. His principal claim is that the ‘new wave’ of misguided opposition against shark nets has made any measures to make waters safer for humans impossible to do. Immediately, Liddell assumes readers’ opinion will be positioned against his, creating an ‘us versus them’ rhetoric throughout the article:

“But this new movement that has sprung up around Australia has us completely perplexed. Somehow you’ve turned the most feared creature on this planet into a poster boy for animal rights. As the writer Robert Drewe has observed, the shark has become the new dolphin. What a handful of us regarded as a pea-brained bloodthirsty killer is apparently highly intelligent.” (Emphasis added)

In doing this, Liddell positions ‘us’ as the people who value human life, and ‘you’ as the group of people that he positions as favouring the lives of sharks over humans. In doing this, he highlights a clear division between sides, declaring his opinion as ‘sane’ in contrast to the ‘insane’ views of the side opposed to his opinion.

In order to support his argument, Liddell appeals to precedent and emotion in many cases expressing the damage that sharks have done to individuals and communities on a physical and financial level. He writes:

“And now, despite its historic habit of snatching young people off surfboards, dismembering innocent swimmers and damaging the fragile summer businesses of so many along the north coast of NSW, it’s impossible for any sane person to even suggest that perhaps the time has come for a little “eco-management” of the burgeoning shark numbers in our waters. You know, a restricted cull. Or just a bullet for the really bad big ones.”

As in many of the articles I have previously analysed, Liddell also curates an image of the monster shark and the innocent swimmer who simply wished to enjoy their day at the beach. This is designed to create an emotional response within readers who are assumed to empathise more with humans, and ultimately aligning with his principal claim that caring about the welfare of sharks means you do not care about human life.

Leah Gibb’s article, “More shark nets for NSW: why haven’t we learned from WA’s cull?” was originally posted on ‘The Conversation’s website, however was then reposted by ABC News. This article could be observed as a rare counter argument towards much of the negative news published about sharks. Her principal claim is that shark culling is a knee-jerk and ineffective solution to shark attacks, as it has been proved in the past in West Australia. Gibbs assumes that her audience will be in agreement with her opinion by using inclusive language such as “we”, creating a sense of solidarity with her audience:

We should continue to invest in developing new strategies that better reflect our contemporary understanding of marine ecosystems. Perhaps we also need to consider (temporarily) altering the way we use the ocean, avoiding areas of higher-than-usual shark sightings.” (Emphasis Added)

Unlike all the other articles analysed, Gibbs has a broader understanding of the dangers of sharks and how to counter this. She does not succumb to simply referring to sharks as ‘monsters’ or ‘killers’, and doesn’t conform to the mainstream media’s cultivated image of sharks. As with Liddell’s article, Gibbs’ article is also one of evaluation. However, Gibbs’ article is considerably more argumentative than Liddell’s opinion-based article, and relies on appeals to facts and authority to support her argument.

The state’s Environmental Protection Authority received a record number of 12,000 submissions from scientific and other experts presenting reasons to cease the cull.

This appeal to facts and authority of the Environmental Protection Authority creates a well rounded and more informed argument as it relies on information other than the writer’s opinion. Thus, unlike all the other articles analysed, Gibbs has a broader understanding of the dangers of sharks and how to counter this. She does not succumb to simply referring to sharks as ‘monsters’ or ‘killers’, and doesn’t conform to the mainstream media’s cultivated image of sharks.

 

Conclusively, there is a substantial trend in the Australian mainstream media that portrays sharks in a negative light. The media has had a considerable impact on the public image of sharks, with continual coverage of shark attacks as opposed to conservation, as well as exposure of bloody victims through the use graphic images working as scare tactic which ultimately creates a varying level of fear amongst Australians. Many articles choose to cultivate a malicious image of sharks as a ‘man-eater’, hungry for human flesh, whilst ignoring facts that sharks do not feed on human flesh, and that as humans, we are entering their environment, that of an apex predator.

 

 

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