Have Newspaper, Will Travel?



Media Coverage Analysis - Shark Attacks, FL 2001

Jesse Arbogast’s story dominated headlines after he was bitten by a bull shark near Pensacola.19 It quickly propelled the shark into a Jaws-esque spotlight. But unlike ordinary celebrities, the shark found out that there is such a thing as bad publicity.

Every time a shark and human crossed paths, the media attacked the story. Dubbed the Summer of the Shark by some media organizations, 2001 was not a good one for these “menaces” of the seas.

AP PhotoAP Shark

But were ocean goers more likely to be bitten by a shark this year than in previous ones? According to statistics complied by the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, the answer is no. The number of unprovoked shark attacks in the state decreased from 38 in 2000 to 37 the following year.28

Then what provoked the journalists?

Critics have not disputed the facts reported by the media, only their failure to put the incidents into perspective. Because so much time was devoted to the coverage, it is possible that viewers might have overestimated the risk.

A state that brought in $50.8 billion in 2002 from tourism, Florida would be subject to adverse economic effects if scores of worried beachgoers canceled travel plans for fear of the shark. 13

Tom Flanigan, a VISIT FLORIDA spokesman, said a major news network producer asked him if the shark attacks were resulting in fewer people at the beach, a Florida media organization reported.

“We can’t answer that,” he replied. “There are no turnstiles at the beaches.”24

One Florida news organization reported canceled hotel reservations around Volusia County. It said Governor Bush blamed lost business on “inflated reports of shark attacks by media outlets filling television time in these days of ’24-hour, seven-days-a-week cable news.”16

The same media outlet interviewed British tourists in Orlando’s airport and reported that the visitors would not be going to the beach because of the shark stories.26


When a group of sharks convened off Anclote Key mid-August, observers noted the swarm of reporters who descended to document the event.

“Want to hook a journalist? Drop the word ‘sharks,’ ” one reporter from the St. Petersburg Times said to lead his story.31

“Dramatic graphics pinpointed the ‘news’ that there were sharks in the Gulf of Mexico,” the article referred to the evening news’ treatment of the event. “Not exactly big news but, by some accounts, it has been a slow summer for news.”31

Experts weighed in, saying that it wasn’t unusual for the sharks to be feeding in the area.

This is one example where the media began to report on itself. After they realized the coverage was disproportionate to the statistics, this hype became the new story angle. (see 34 & 35)

George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File, supplied these statistics. According to a 2002 press release, Burgess participated in 900 interviews from July to September that year. This was three times the number of requests he usually gets each year.28





Copyright © 2003

Heather M. Edwards

Last Updated 4/16/03

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