The summer months in New York City are accompanied by seasonal traditions, such as ice cream trucks, heat waves—and the supposed threat of shark attacks.
The imminent danger of sharks make headlines each year, despite New York’s last fatal shark attack occurring in 1878, and there being only 30 recorded attacks in the state since 1642, according to data from the Shark Research Institute. Less than half of those attacks were unprovoked.
“If you write ‘shark attack,’ people will have a look,” said Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research. But sharks rarely pose an actual threat, according to Naylor, who added that there are on average less than five fatal shark attacks each year globally.
Naylor said he receives calls every summer from journalists asking for shark bite stories, to which he responds: “Oh, is it a slow news week?”
Is it all just hype?
Coverage of shark attacks is a recurring genre for news outlets, according to Jeff Cohen, a media critic and founder of media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. “Scaring viewers gets ratings,” he said. “But the one thing you never hear is statistics.”
Nassau County police on Long Island recently announced an increase in police shark patrols for the summer, after a lifeguard was bit by a shark on July 3 at Smith Point Beach. However, these types of policies are caused by media hype surrounding shark attacks, Cohen said. “We live in a society that’s so dominated by media that politicians have to chase after the story.”
Cohen first noticed media shark coverage in 2001, during what he calls “the summer of shark attacks.” But the number of reported attacks in the U.S. only increased from 54 in 2000 to 55 in 2001.
“There wasn’t a huge increase in attacks at all. The only thing that had increased was the coverage,” Cohen said. “Scaring people works. It worked in 2001 and it still works today.”