Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Sharks and the Insurgency

And so, sharks are in the news again these days. It seems hard to believe that the media has worked itself up into a frenzy over this subject, given what happened the last time "death from the deep" was dominating the headlines. But, to a certain degree, I understand.

You see, I have a somewhat long-standing fascination with sharks myself. I saw Jaws 2 at the tender age of 10 or so and have been an avid shark-o-phile ever since. I've probably read about a hundred books on the subject and have been known to schedule vacations around the Discovery Channel's Shark Week. In fact, "cage diving with great white sharks" is prominently featured on my short list of things to do before I die -- right above climbing Kilimanjaro, if memory serves.

At any rate, this is just a long way of saying that I'm familiar with the subject. And it is this familiarity allows me to confidently state that the recent hysteria over these attacks in Florida is exactly that -- hysteria. The threat of shark attack has not increased recently. The odds are now what they have always been: indescribable low. So, you can relax. The water is actually quite safe.

Of course, you'd never know that given the way the media is reacting. Frankly, it's understandable that people are beginning to get the impression that the water is churning with bloodthirsty sharks who crave human flesh. With every attack gobbling copious amounts each news cycle, who could blame the casual observer from arriving at this erroneous conclusion. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of beachgoers enjoy their coastal adventures completely free of any threat of predation. If only our anti-shark media could set aside its bias long enough to give a full and accurate report of all beachfront activities, then we would have a much clearer understanding of the shark situation.

Notice anything funny there at the end of that last paragraph? Yep -- I sort of drifted off into the standard apologist complaint regarding the media coverage of Iraq. It is simply the claim that the popular impression of a given situation is driven not by reality, but by the imagery generated by mainstream media. You may feel that you know the truth, but all you know is what you have been told.

On a certain level, this is a good point to make. It is undeniably true that we are at the mercy of those who provide us our information. If we did not witness an event ourselves, we must trust those who have. Perhaps more importantly, we must trust them to appropriately contextualize that event so that we know what it means. Given our dependence on our proxy witnesses, it is certainly possible to be misled.

That in mind, let's take a look at these two situations. Is contextualization problematic in each of them?

As it turns out, there is a very important distinction to keep in mind between these two situations: the violence at the beach is random while the violence in Iraq is not. The attacking sharks were not involved in a large scale conspiracy, colluding with others in order to achieve some sort of collective goal. These attacks do not represent any sort of general animosity between sharks and humans. Given that these attacks were most likely driven by mistaken identity or a confused territorial response, they do not even represent a manifestation of the natural food chain. They were, like so many natural events, triggered by chance and, in so, signify nothing.

On the other hand, the Iraqi insurgents are trying to kill coalition and Iraqi security forces. These attacks might be random in the sense that the perpetrators have little concern for the specific identity of their victims. But, they are committed with the intent to achieve a political end. Therefore, these events have meaning beyond the numbers involved. Even if they are few and far between, as long as they have a destabilizing effect on the political situation in Iraq, they matter.

So, this isn't a matter of the media ignoring the improving condition of the Iraqi schools in favor of antiwar propaganda. This is about reporting on events that dramatically affect the political stability of the region. It's not about violence per se, it's about what that violence means. That's the context and that's what's important.

I certainly would never argue that the media shies away from sensationalism. As they say, in local news, if it bleeds, it leads. To a certain extent, this is true at the higher end of the media food chain as well. And we are seeing this phenomenon in play with the Florida shark attacks and the missing white woman of the week. But the coverage from Iraq is a different animal and we shouldn't let the distinction be blurred.

Blood in the water is not the same thing as blood in the sand.
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