Summer of the Shark

shark panic

Sensationalism

The Summer of the Shark refers to the coverage of shark attacks by American news media in the summer of 2001. The sensationalist coverage of shark attacks began in early July following the Fourth of July weekend shark attack on 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast, and continued almost unabated—despite no evidence for an actual increase in attacks—until the September 11 terrorist attacks shifted the media’s attention away from beaches. The ‘Summer of the Shark’ has since been remembered as an example of tabloid television perpetuating a story with no real merit beyond its ability to draw ratings.

In mid-August, many networks were showing footage captured by helicopters of hundreds of sharks coalescing off the southwest coast of Florida. Beach-goers were warned of the dangers of swimming, despite the fact that the swarm was likely part of an annual shark migration. The repeated broadcasts of the shark group has been criticized as blatant fear mongering, leading to the unwarranted belief of a so-called shark ‘epidemic.’

Investigative journalist John Stossel discussed the media’s shark fixation in his book ‘Give Me a Break,’ stating: ‘Instead of putting risks in proportion, we [reporters] hype interesting ones. Tom Brokaw, Katie Couric, and countless others called 2001 the ‘summer of the shark.’ […] In truth, there wasn’t a remarkable surge in shark attacks in 2001. There were about as many in 1995 and 2000, but 1995 was the year of the OJ Simpson trial, and 2000 was an election year. The summer of 2001 was a little dull, so reporters focused on sharks.

In terms of absolute minutes of television coverage on the three major broadcast networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—shark attacks were 2001’s third ‘most important’ news story prior to September 11, behind the western United States forest fires, and the political scandal resulting from the Chandra Levy missing persons case. However, the comparatively higher shock value of shark attacks left a lasting impression on the public. According to the ‘International Shark Attack File,’ there were 76 shark attacks that occurred in 2001, lower than the 85 attacks documented in 2000; furthermore, although 5 people were killed in attacks in 2001, this was less than the 12 deaths caused by shark attacks the previous year.

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