Word Play: Analyzing Coverage of Elephants and Sharks

Which gets an issues -- or a species -- more "ink?" A week of dramatic and heavily marketed television or a sports team?

The Discovery Channel's Shark Week has done a great deal to raise awareness of sharks -- as well as spawning an interesting new movie franchise. As many people have seen this week, #sharkweek has also provided a platform -- particularly across social media -- for other organizations and brands to tag along.  

Upwell has done a great job in tying the reality television binge-fest of Shark Week into campaigns that inform people about the plight of sharks. 

While they are vastly different animals, elephants and sharks occupy similar positions as keystone species. They are both iconic animals that have a complex relationship with humans. And they are both under extreme threat, particularly by poachers. 

They have also received roughly the same amount of "ink" over the last 150 years, at least in The New York Times. NYTimes.com recently released a research tool called Chronicle that allows users to analyze the use of words in the paper. I recently compared the number of articles that mention "elephants" or "sharks." 

Comparing the total number of articles that mention "elephants" or "sharks." Source: NYTimes.com Chronicle

While "sharks" spiked higher at various points, "elephants" consistently get more mentions in the Times. Digging deeper into the spike in "sharks" around 1980 showed many instances of television listing with "sharks." Though I couldn't read the entire articles, this was not long after "Jaws" (1975) and there were a number of movies and documentaries that came out around that time which were clearly inspired by that iconic film. 

Looking at the percentage of articles that mention "sharks" and "elephants" shows a similar result:

Comparing the percentage of articles that mention "elephants" or "sharks." Source: NYTimes.com Chronicle

In both cases, there has been an uptick in the mentions of "sharks" since 1990, and since then the mentions of sharks outpace the mentions of elephants. The Discovery Channel's first Shark Week happened in 1988, so there is a correlation between the increased mentions and the existence of Shark Week. 

But digging in to the underlying article lists, shows that many of the "sharks" instances refer to the San Jose Sharks hockey team which was created in 1991

So perhaps getting a professional sports team named after elephants could help them grab more "ink" in the future. The Evansville Elephants sounds pretty good.