Editor's note: This post originally appeared on Southern Fried Science, and has been reposted with permission from the author, David Shiffman. 

The American Elasmobranch Society, the world’s largest professional organization of shark and ray scientists, has issued a resolution calling on the Associated Press Stylebook and the Reuters Style Guide to retire the phrase 'shark attack' in favor of a more accurate (and less inflammatory) wording that is scaled to represent real risk and outcomes. The AP Stylebook and Reuters Style Guides are reference guides for journalists and editors which focus on, among other things, reducing the usage of inaccurate and outdated terminology. The latest AP Stylebook, for example, has more than 90 new or updated entries which include encouraging journalists and editors to a stop using terms like 'illegal immigrant', 'ethnic cleansing' and 'homophobia'.

"Shark scientists in the United States and around the world have great respect for the integrity and reporting of the Associated Press and Reuters. We hope they will act on this recommendation and update their style guides to ensure that the public gets the most accurate information in the reporting of these incidents," said Lara Ferry, President of the American Elasmobranch Society, who sent a formal letter to the AP Stylebook and Reuters Style Guide.

Currently, though 'shark attack' is associated with an image of a large shark and a human fatality, the phrase is used by the media as a catch-all to describe any encounter between a human and a shark, even those that don’t result in any physical contact whatsoever. Fully 38% of reported 'shark attacks' in New South Wales, Australia from 1970-2009 resulted in no injury whatsoever. This is misleading and facilitates a perception among the public that sharks are more dangerous than they really are, a perception which has negatively impacted shark conservation and management policy.

"The accuracy in media reporting of shark bites and different human-shark interactions is especially important during the kinds of tragic periods we have seen this summer. The public deserves the best information to make sure there is no confusion between very serious and fatal shark bites and minor incidents," said Christopher Neff, a Ph.D. student at Sydney University.

In a recent paper, Neff and Bob Hueter of Mote Marine Lab proposed a scaled labeling typology [classification system] to describe human-shark interactions. This typology covers the full range of these interactions, including:


Sightings of sharks in the water in proximity to people. No physical human–shark contact takes place.


Human-shark interactions in which physical contact occurs between a shark and a person, or an inanimate object holding that person, and no injury takes place. For example, shark bites on surfboards, kayaks, and boats would be classified under this label. In some cases, this might include close calls; a shark physically 'bumping' a swimmer without biting would be labeled a shark encounter, not a shark attack. A minor abrasion on the person’s skin might occur as a result of contact with the rough skin of the shark.


Incidents where sharks bite people resulting in minor to moderate injuries. Small or large sharks might be involved, but typically, a single, nonfatal bite occurs. If more than one bite occurs, injuries might be serious. Under this category, the term “shark attack” should never be used unless the motivation and intent of the animal – such as predation or defense – are clearly established by qualified experts. Since that is rarely the case, these incidents should be treated as cases of shark 'bites' rather than shark 'attacks'.


Human-shark conflicts in which serious injuries take place as a result of one or more bites on a person, causing a significant loss of blood and/or body tissue and a fatal outcome. Again, we strongly caution against using the term 'shark attack' unless the motivation and intent of the shark are clearly established by experts, which is rarely the case. Until new scientific information appears that better explains the physical, chemical, and biological triggers leading sharks to bite humans, we recommend that the term 'shark attack' be avoided by scientists, government officials, the media, and the public in almost all incidences of human–shark interaction.

“Using an approach like the one Chris and I proposed puts these incidents into proper perspective,” said Dr. Hueter. “We simply must stop calling every shark-human interaction an ‘attack’ because it’s not based on science, inflates the risk to swimmers, and casts sharks as a group into an unfair light. In a time when many populations of sharks have been severely depleted, the use of ‘attack’ language in headlines and television programs is counter-productive to the need for marine conservation.”


The full American Elasmobranch Society letter to the Associated Press and Reuters can be read in Shiffman's origial post here. To the best of his knowlege, no response has been issued by either the Associated Press or Reuters since the original post went up.

Top header image: Grant Peters/Flickr