Welcome to Pocket Science: an overview of recent research by Husker scientists and engineers. For those who want to quickly learn the “What”, “So what” and “Now what” of Husker research.
The chances of encountering a dangerous spider are much longer than its legs: less than five species of spiders out of 1000 pose a threat to human health, and the few that rarely live among humans. Yet arachnophobia is one of the most common animal fears.
But the reasons for arachnophobia – and the spider’s classification as a villain of nature – remain unclear. Some research has pointed to socio-cultural influences, with a recent study suggesting that watching the rare example of spider-friendly media, a “Spider-Man” movie, can reduce arachnophobic behavior.
Following this thread, an international team of arachnologists wondered how the content and tone of spider coverage in online media might affect people’s perceptions of the eight-legged. Unfortunately, only two studies had analyzed media coverage related to spiders, and those only in Australia and Italy.
Laura Segura Hernández from Nebraska joined a 65 researchers, effort on six continents to compile a database of online articles about spider-man encounters published from 2010 to 2020. Using Google News keyword searches, the team amassed 5,348 articles spanning 40 languages and 81 countries.
About 14 times more stories were published in 2019 than in 2010. Of the total stories, 47% contained at least one error about spiders; 43% were considered sensationalist, often relying on words such as “agony”, “creepy creepy” and “nightmare”. Less than 20% consulted a spider specialist.
By cataloging the details of the stories – publication date, medium, reported spider species, type and location of the event – the new database should prompt questions and inform answers, the team said. Among the questions: What socio-cultural factors explain the geographical disparities in coverage? Do differences in media framing match perceptions of spiders and conservation efforts? Could coverage help track habitat extents and expansions?
The team’s approach could also be applied to coverage of other maligned animals, including biting insects, snakes and jellyfish.