In August of 2001, media outlets across the country were in a feeding frenzy of shark attack stories, airing footage captured by helicopters of hundreds of sharks coalescing off the coasts of major U.S. beaches like southwest Florida. The sensationalism-starved media dubbed that season, “Summer of the Shark” and completed their coverage with eye-popping graphics of those man-eating sea monsters—the perfect story for a late-August, slow news cycle.
However, the true story behind that summer is far more guppy than great white. According to the International Shark Attack File, there were 76 shark attacks that occurred in 2001, lower than the 85 attacks documented in 2000. Furthermore, although five people were killed in attacks in 2001, this was less than the 12 deaths caused by shark attacks the previous year.
For better or worse, much of televised news is viewership-driven entertainment meant to frighten or anger the audience into tuning in each and every night to watch a loudmouthed know-it-all with coiffed hair expound on tragedies and trivialities in the same fervent tone. When the shark attack stories of 2001 were replaced with real-life horror stories of September 11, television media continued with its marching orders to deliver the catastrophe 24-7, packaged and ready for consumption. It is the same today with everything from heartbreaking mass shootings to the latest, frivolous celebrity feud, the importance of which is, at best, an illusion.
The never-ending cable news mill can churn out meaningful coverage, and it definitely did so with humanizing tales of heroics on September 11, but its dark side produces a glut of irrelevant drivel that only serves to amp up societal hysteria—look no further than this current Presidential Election as evidence.
Distraction can be a good thing. When sold as scripted fiction, distraction can be one of the best things. But when it’s bundled as news, distraction can have shocking results.