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Evaluating the Media's Role in Public and Political Responses to Human-Shark Interactions in NSW, Australia

By Sam Fraser-Baxter

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Of all animals that pose danger to humans in this world, few are more feared than sharks. Human-shark interactions are traumatic, emotional and difficult to rationalize. While rare, human-shark interactions generate a disproportionate amount of media coverage and public debate. The mass media is widely attributed with the continuation of negative discourses of sharks through sensationalized, emotive and graphic documentation of human-shark interactions.

During 2015, New South Wales, Australia experienced an unprecedented spike in human-shark interactions, which saw the escalation of public anxieties surrounding water safety and the development of the state’s Shark Management Strategy, announced in late 2015. Of the state’s 14 human-shark interactions that took place, 8 were recorded on the state’s North Coast. An unusual concentrated distribution of sharks in near shore waters was widely reported by surfers, fisherman and pilots. The interactions ignited considerable public debate, which sought to explain the spike in interactions and how to manage the risk of human-shark interaction. The public and political responses to the interactions were documented thoroughly by the media.

Previous literature has established an understanding of the way the media communicates human-shark interactions, public perceptions of sharks and the relationships between the media, publics and governments in the development of shark management policy. McCagh et. al (2015) have explored the role of media discourse in the development of shark management policy. The methods used in this study are largely built upon methods carried out by McCagh et. al (2015) and seeks to develop them in terms of scope and depth.

The objective of the study was to evaluate the role of the media in the development of shark management policy in NSW. Discourse analysis was used to investigate two newspaper’s reports of human-shark interactions on the North Coast to provide insights into the media’s communication of human-shark interactions, patterns of public and political response to human-shark interactions and the development of shark management policy.

The findings of this study show that the discourse used by the media examined is not fear-laden, sensationalized or emotive which previous studies have emphasized. Instead there is an evident tension between anthropocentric and eco-centric values in both the media and the government’s communication of human-shark interactions. Discourse surrounding management solutions offered by the media echoed that of the NSW state government; that management should be non-lethal, trialed and scientifically validated. Analysis of responses to human-shark interactions paints a picture of the intricate political and social processes at play following clusters of human-shark interactions.

This study highlights the need for a paradigm shift in shark management that sees the responsibility of water-safety and the onus and responsibility of risk moving away from governments and further towards the public. Based on the efficacy of management solutions offered by the government and the timing of their announcement after human-shark interactions during heightened public anxieties, this study concludes that shark management in NSW was not meaningfully focused on reducing the risk of human and sharks interacting, but instead at placating and calming public fears surrounding water safety.


Mason N McLary

HABRI Central

Date 2017
Pages 168
Publisher University of Otago
Location of Publication Dunedin, New Zealand
Department Science Communication
Degree Science Communication
Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal roles
  2. Animals in culture
  3. Animal welfare
  4. Anxiety
  5. Australia
  6. Fear
  7. Fish
  8. Health
  9. Literature
  10. Media
  11. Physical environment
  12. Policy and Planning
  13. sharks
  14. Social Environments
  15. Wild animals