A bull shark swims in the waters of the Bahamas Islands. Authors of a new study say the media and the public should tone down use of the term "shark attack" because it sparks fear. / Brian J. Skerry Getty Images
According to a new study, that which we call a shark attack is really something else.
"The term 'attack' carries so much baggage because it has the idea of criminal intent," said Bob Hueter, head of Mote Marine Laboratory's Center for Shark Research and co-author of the study. "Yes, sharks occasionally bite people, but well fewer than 10 percent are serious or fatal.
"But, all over the map, shark encounters ranging from serious bites to minor bites to incidents where there's no physical contact with a person are all characterized as attacks. That translates into unnecessary fear of these animals."
In their paper, published this week in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Hueter and Christopher Neff of the University of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia, show how science played a role in the demonization and unnecessary fear of sharks.
It all started with Carl Linnaeus, creator of the system for classifying organisms, who wrote in 1758 that the great white shark has teeth of armor and was probably the "great fish" that swallowed Jonah.
Through the centuries, scientists weighed in on the fearsome nature of sharks, and in 1950, Australian surgeon Sir Victor Coppleson came up with the term "rogue shark," which was made famous in the movie "Jaws."
Coppleson wrote that the rogue is "a vicious shark which patrols a certain area of the coast, of a river or of a harbor, for long periods."
With the help of scientists, as well as literature and movies, sharks were given human motivation and, in the words of the new study, became seen as "resident serial killers lurking in wait for human prey."
Hueter called 2001 a "watershed year" for media sensationalism concerning shark-human encounters.
On July 6, 2001, a bull shark bit off the right arm of an 8-year-old boy, who was swimming at the beach off Pensacola, Fla.
That incident was followed by a series of minor bites on surfers on Florida's east coast; on Aug. 4, a New York resident lost a leg to a shark in the Bahamas; on Sept. 2, a 10-year-old boy was killed by a shark off Virginia Beach; the next day, a 26-year-old man was killed off Cape Hatteras, N.C., and his girlfriend lost a leg.
After that, many in the media adopted the phrase "summer of the shark," even though there were fewer shark incidents nationwide and in Florida in 2001 than in 2000 -- 53 incidents nationwide in 2000, 50 in 2001; 37 in Florida in 2000, 34 in 2001.
Searching an online database, Hueter found 48 stories about shark incidents appearing in Florida newspapers between July 8 and Aug. 25, 2001. Although most of the incidents resulted in minor or no injuries, the word "attack" appeared in the headlines of 38 stories and 201 times in the texts of the 48 stories.
In May 2002, Hueter and George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File, held a news conference for the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
"We told them that 2001 was not a remarkable year, despite reports, and the media should tone down the language," Hueter said. "This was not accurate reporting. I think I've seen some changes since then."
Instead of the expression "shark attack," the study proposes that scientists, media, policymakers and the public use four categories in reference to shark incidents:
Shark sightings: When sharks are seen close to people in the water, and there is no shark-human contact.
Shark encounters: When there is contact between a shark and a human or an inanimate object holding the human, and the human suffers no injury. This would include when a shark bites a surfboard or kayak.
Shark bites: When a shark bites a person, resulting in minor to moderate injuries.
Fatal shark bites: When a shark kills a human.
This new approach could have a positive effect on coastal tourism, said Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau.
"Thankfully, our destination has few if any shark incidents, but in the big picture, greater accuracy in terminology should help calm some of those fears," she said. "Any movement that combats misperceptions that could hurt beach visitation is a benefit."
Associate research scientist Brent Winner of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission likes the idea of dropping the word "attack" when talking about sharks.
"They make good points about how that could be useful for the press," he said. "I think it's a good paper. The authors bring out some great points, and they're 100 percent correct: Since the 1950s, we've learned a ton about sharks."
Biologist John Carlson of the National Marine Fisheries Service agreed.
"It's a much more valid approach," he said. "The term 'attack' is very broad-based. These classifications provide a better scientific perspective and will provide the public with better information."
Attempts to change the public's perception about sharks could be controversial, and Hueter said he's ready for the backlash.
"People will probably say we're just trying to be politically correct, or we're shark huggers or shark apologists," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if we became a punch line on Letterman: Now we have to talk about gator nibbles and bear hugs.
"We're not trying to sweep anything under the rug. What we're talking about is education and awareness."
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