Jumping the gun? Misleading “reporting” of identification of shark involved in fatal attack in Florida

Juvenile great white sharks (Carcharodon Carcharias), though rare, can be found off the coast of Florida during the winter months, along with several other shark species.

The Palm Beach Post has a cleverly crafted article with a headline “possibly” identifying the species involved in yesterday’s fatal shark attack of a Stuart, Florida kite boarder. The headline, Expert: Young great white sharks possibly involved in fatal Stuart attack, is followed up with the statement credited to Grant Gilmore noting that “young great white sharks — the fish of Jaws notoriety — are among suspects in Wednesday’s fatal attack off Stuart’s coast.” However, if you read far enough into the article, it states that Gilmore would NOT guess which species was involved, since the only available information about the attack was early news reports.

The article goes on to discuss yesterday’s shark attack and mentions three other species common to the area that are cited as being “known to attack humans” but notes that these three species (bull sharks, tiger sharks, and great hammerhead sharks) prefer warmer waters and tend to leave the area in the winter.

Despite the tendency for these species to leave the area in the winter, tiger shark sightings were reported just last week at Riviera Beach, approximately 35 miles north of yesterday’s attack. In addition, a shark which at least one news source identified as a great hammerhead, was also caught on Riviera Beach last week. That same report indicates that bull sharks are common in the area this time of year.

While there is nothing dishonest, per se, about the story’s headline identifying a “possible” suspected species, the nudging of the reader towards the idea that great white sharks (“of Jaws notoriety,” no less) were behind the attack is fairly prominent, despite no evidence being available at the time of the report to indicate the species. So, while the article is not necessarily dishonest, I find it a bit misleading at best. Other news agencies are eating up the Palm Beach Post article and running their own similar stories, including the LA Times article,
Young great white sharks may have killed Stuart surfer, expert says

While it may turn out that great white sharks were, in fact, involved in this tragic attack, running headlines based on a few statements suggesting a possibility that great white sharks were the culprits is simply irresponsible reporting. Given the limited information that was available when the statements were made, speculation by news agencies falls outside of the realm of objective reporting, and is irresponsible journalism, at best, especially considering the fact that the expert who was questioned on the subject specifically stated that there was not enough information to even guess the species.

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