OPINION | How ‘Jaws’ and the media villainized sharks forever

Since its release in 1975, “Jaws” has been not only deemed as a cult classic, but it also paved the way to an ideology that is harmful to one of the most prevalent marine wildlife: sharks. Since then, people have used this ideology to demonize sharks as a whole. Mason Britton | Sun News Daily

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Dun dun… dun dun… dun dun dun dunnnnnnnnn.

This foreboding song is easily recognizable. It’s a song meant to strike fear in the hearts of all who hear it–the sound of “Jaws.”

Are sharks really as frightening as the movies make them seem? Are they really these horrifying, human-eating monsters? The answer is “no.” That’s just what the media has trained us to believe.

It is important that the media takes responsibility for its role in the public’s negative perception of sharks and the stereotype it has created.

When I was younger, I wanted to be a marine biologist thanks to the ocean documentaries I spent hours watching. I continue to see the ocean as a fascinating and magical thing and something worth protecting. Sharks are a very important part of ocean ecosystems, and without them, we would all see negative repercussions such as a disrupted food chain and the loss of reefs and habitats.

The 1975 film “Jaws” is largely responsible for the way people view sharks today. The film was released at a time when very little was known about sharks. This lack of previous knowledge made the film’s negative depiction of sharks many peoples’ first impression of the animal.

Galeophobia is an irrational fear of sharks. According to Psychologist Gabriella Hancock, people are not born with a fear of sharks. This fear is something learned and reinforced by society. There is this popular belief that sharks intentionally attack humans.

The truth is sharks would much rather avoid people because humans are not a part of their normal diet. Regardless of the evidence scientists give that proves otherwise, people continue to have an excessive fear of sharks. Scientists call this “The Jaws Effect.”

In a documentary called “Saving Jaws,” marine biologist Ocean Ramsey and underwater wildlife photographer Juan Oliphant bring light to the negative effects the media has had on the world’s perception of sharks. In the beginning of the documentary, people on the street were interviewed and asked “What is the first word that comes to your mind when I say sharks?” Many had the same answer: “fear.” When asked why, they all answered that it is because of the movie “Jaws” and other movies and media surrounding sharks.

The narrative around sharks in the media is widely negative, focusing on this idea that they are “mindless eating machines.” There is such a wide range of shark movies out there, many of which have outrageous plots such as “The Meg” or “Sharknado,” but they all seem to boil down to a similar message: sharks are a danger for humans.

Thanks to this negative perception of sharks fueled by the media, inhumane practices such as shark finning are overlooked by many. Humans kill 80 million sharks annually, whether it be for their fins, for sport or as accidental bycatch. People’s fear of sharks causes them to overlook such a terrifying number because it’s not the same as if they were told 80 million harmless dolphins were being killed; that’s something they would take seriously.

Sharks are apex predators, meaning they deserve our respect. However, they should not be seen as monsters.

Since 1988, the Discovery Channel has dedicated a week to a special programming event called “Shark Week.” Shark Week highlights the flip side of the negative representation of sharks in other media with the goal to captivate and educate their viewers. A variety of shows during the week bring awareness to the importance of the role sharks play in the world.

Whether negative or positive, the media holds a lot of power when it comes to shaping people’s perspectives. The villainizing of sharks is a perfect example of how influential the media can be. Before producing content, it is crucial that we take into account the lasting impressions it may leave and what consequences it may have. Being more educated on the topic is one way to ensure the content we produce is not creating false narratives.