UNC doctoral candidate looks to change perception of sharks

CHAPEL HILL (WNCN) – Sharks are in the news with recent attacks along the Carolina coast and the headlines are not positive for the sea creatures.

“I think it’s too bad for sharks. When you look at the numbers, the risk for shark attacks is still exceptionally low,” said Suzannah Evans, a doctoral candidate at the UNC School of Media and Journalism.

She and her research partner, Jessica Myrick, decided to gauge perception of sharks in a study conducted last summer.

It came from Evans’ background working for the ocean conservation group Oceana.

“We produced this PSA and it ran on Shark Week, but the truth is we never knew what the effect was of the PSA,” she said.

So to test that, they got feedback from more than 500 participants online who watched shark conservation public service announcements as well as clips varying in levels of violence from the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.

“What we found is that no matter what, people are scared of sharks. Shark Week is very powerful material. It’s very dramatic. People are scared of sharks. One PSA is not going to undo that. But, what we did see was that when people saw the PSA, they did say that they were more interested in shark conservation,” she said.

It comes down to a matter of being scared of sharks or being scared for sharks.

“I think what we took away from it was that Shark Week has an opportunity to turn at least some of its viewers into ocean advocates. Not all of them. Many people are watching Shark Week for pure entertainment value and it entertains very well. But, it is possible that Shark Week could help bolster efforts to protect sharks,” she said.

Laurie Goldberg, executive vice president of Discovery and Science Channel public relations, stood by the programming.

She told WNCN that over the past 28 years, Shark Week, which starts July 5, has created a whole new generation of shark scientists.

This year it’s designed to have a greater emphasis on facts and science.

It should be also be noted that Oceana is a shark week conservation partner.

Conservation is why Evans says the perception of sharks matters.

“The public needs to have a positive view of sharks in order to understand intellectually why we should protect them and sharks are important to the ocean because they are a top predator and when you see a shark in the marine ecosystem, it’s an indication that you have a healthy ecosystem,” she said.

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