Shark Week: Just When I Thought It Was Safe to Turn On the Television Again

by Mark Stewart on August 5, 2011

My mother had a bit of a health scare last week. My younger brother was able to take the day off of work when it happened (a Thursday), and I was able to visit her over the weekend. It turned out to be nothing, thankfully, but she was still feeling a little weak and dizzy while I was there, so we sat in her room chatting with the television on. My girlfriend was kind enough to go with me, and she and my mother bonded over their mutual love of a television show that was on at the time: Say Yes to the Dress.

Now, I may be the only person in the world who has never seen or heard of this show, but in case there are others out there who are similarly ignorant, it is a show where brides-to-be and their families go to a dress boutique the size of a Arabian palace and choose the dress they will wear on their wedding day. The dresses are priced in the thousands of dollars, sometimes the tens of thousands. I lived abroad for four years before returning to graduate school, and I had no television service while I was a teacher, so I have missed out on nearly a decade of television. I have some seasons of The West Wing, House: M.D., Mythbusters, and The Big Bang Theory on DVD, but that is nearly the extent of my cultural awareness of the changing face of television in the 21st century.

Sitting in my mother’s room this past weekend and seeing her and my girlfriend’s enjoyment of the show about expensive dresses, I said nothing at the time. However, the show that followed it was about the culture of beauty pageants for young girls, and I mean really young, five-years-old young. It was called Toddlers and Tiaras. I found this show to be too disturbing to be viewed. I asked, “Isn’t there anything better on? You know, something that doesn’t make me want to rip my eyes out? Don’t you have The Discovery Channel or something?”

She does in fact have The Discovery Channel. She pressed a button on the remote, and we discovered that it was Shark Week. Now, from my memory The Discovery Channel and Shark Week were focused on science. But, this seems to have changed. The show was about shark attacks. And, the show following it was about shark attacks. And, the show that followed that one was also about shark attacks. I looked up the programming schedule for Shark Week on The Discovery Channel website and discovered the following titles of shows: Top Five Eaten Alive, Rogue Sharks, Killer Sharks, Into the Shark Bite, 10 Deadliest Sharks, When Fish Attack 2, When Fish Attack 3. What is going on? Since when has The Discovery Channel moved towards the least common denominator? Where is the substance of science?

I am worried that the upper leadership of The Discovery Channel will discover what Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg did: when you frighten people about sharks, people tend to fight back, and we are the ones with the opposable thumbs. But, are we truly at risk? According to ichthyologists and the ISAF statistics, there are on average 12 U.S. shark attack deaths per decade (to reiterate: per decade not per year). Furthermore, for the entire world in the year 2000, the year with the highest number of shark attacks on record, there were 80 attacks and 11 deaths. Again, those data are for the whole world in the worst year ever recorded. As a comparison, the National Weather Service gives an annual rate in the U.S. of 62 deaths and 300 injuries from lightning! That is to say, an average U.S. citizen has about 60 times more risk of dying in the next year from lightning than from a shark attack.

Since the 1974 release of the book Jaws and the 1975 release of the film of the same name, Peter Benchley has come to be a conservationist. He has said in numerous interviews that he feels responsible for the myths and stereotypes towards sharks that his book created, and for the resulting Jaws Effect (a phenomenon that came about after the popularity of Jaws in which fishermen would kill sharks on sight). When media take hold of a news event and sensationalize it all out of proportion in relation to risk and statistics, the results tend to be tragic.

The story that was the basis for Jaws was the Jersey Shore Attacks of 1916. At the time, it was thought that sharks would not attack human swimmers in temperate climates. However, an extremely hot summer, a polio scare, and a year of battleship and gunboat target practice in the Caribbean Sea (preparation for World War I) pushed large numbers of humans into contact with large numbers of sharks. Five people were attacked and four of them died. The story caused a sensation and media attention followed and expanded it.

The purpose of this blog is to remind us of the power of statistics in relaying to us our true risk. We must be careful to avoid believing sensational media stories without first checking into the numbers and the science. But, it is also a lamentation for the status of television. I thought that The Discovery Channel was one of the few that could be counted on for quality content. I fear this has changed. Furthermore, Say Yes to the Dress, Toddlers and Tiaras, and a recent show hosted by Sarah Palin are/were on The Learning Channel. What learning can come from these shows? The Jersey Shore Attacks of 1916 led to misunderstanding about sharks and to the creation of the Jaws franchise, which in turn lead to more misunderstanding about sharks. I thought that The Discovery Channel would be a source of factual information and science to hold back sensationalism such as that arising from The Jersey Shore Attacks of 1916. But, unfortunately, it seems that The Jersey Shore has struck back.

To read more posts by Mark Stewart click here.

Photo Credit:

Jaws Film Theatrical Release Poster

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