Shark Week Has Fallen Victim to Sensationalism, and That’s Not OK
In this day and age, we are bombarded with information. I’m not trying to make a value judgement, it’s just the truth. There is so much to keep up with. We have Twitter, Facebook, packed-to-the-gills RSS feeds. It’s hard to keep up. It is for me at least.
While I like to think that we all consume media with a critical eye, the truth is that we often take short cuts. We’ve learned through experience which websites we can trust to provide accurate information and which ones we can’t. We learn to identify satire. (Well, some of us do.) When our trusted sources start to slip, we feel betrayed. We feel duped.
Since its premiere in 1988, the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week has become a national phenomenon. The original intent, from what I can gather, was to raise awareness and respect for all things shark. Right on! Sharks are cool and they get a bum rap. And the Discovery Channel is one of those channels where I expect to get good information. It’s the home of Mythbusters, for crying out loud! I don’t expect it to also be the home of spurious documentaries and pseudoscience.
You may remember that last year the Discovery Channel came under fire for airing a documentary — or I should say “documentary” — about the Megalodon. This animal did actually live, but went extinct 1.5 million years ago. Ask any scientist who studies sharks and they will tell you that Megalodon doesn’t live on Earth today. Not that the viewers of the program would come away with that knowledge. The “documentary” was entirely fictional, but was aired without any indication of that.
As Vox points out, the Megalodon program was the highest rated show in last year’s Shark Week line-up. But, considering the outrage that followed after the program last year, you’d think that the Discovery Channel would try a little harder to live up to its reputation as a good source for scientific content.
Well…not so much. It appears as though they’ve doubled down on faux shark documentaries. Last Sunday they aired a program about submarine shark, a 35-foot-long Great White that supposedly swims off the coast of South Africa and attacks people. The problem? It’s not true. None of it is. Not only that, but it perpetuates dangerous myths about sharks; myths that a Shark Week of 27 years ago would have done its best to dispel.
Not only is it insulting that they’re just reheating lies, but in telling the story of a group of whale-watchers whose boat capsizes, making them vulnerable to an attack from a giant great white with a slasher-movie antagonist’s exacting precision, Shark of Darkness perpetuates dangerous myths about sharks. “Expert” Mel Thurmond from the phony South African Institute for Marine Research has a Typepad page and a tendency to classify Submarine as a “cunning” beast with an “insatiable appetite for human blood.” While the character does acknowledge in passing that great whites don’t normally attack/eat humans, the rest of Shark of Darkness serves to demonize the demon fish in very much the same way that Jaws did. Painting sharks as cold-blooded maneaters who hunt humans for sport did real damage in the world that took decades to reverse. It turned every movie-going asshole with a fishing pole into a shark hunter, and eventually helped lead to the great white being labeled as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. (In June, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report suggesting that the great white population is rebuilding, thanks to conservation efforts.)
All of this is bad and enough reason for me to swear off Shark Week for good. You wouldn’t be alone in wondering how the Discovery Channel gets actual scientists involved in Shark Week documentaries to begin with. It turns out that producers are basically lying to scientists to get them to talk on camera.
Jonathan Davis was a masters student studying bull sharks off the Louisiana coast. He said he was approached by the Shark Week film crew. However, when he asked questions about the documentary they were filming, he was stonewalled. He couldn’t get a straight answer. All he was told was that his interview would be combined with “other filming” to make a show about shark research in Louisiana. According to io9:
Davis was shocked to find that his interview aired during a 2013 Shark Week special called Voodoo Shark, which was about a mythical monster shark called “Rooken” that lived in the Bayous of Louisiana. The “other filming” his interview was combined with featured a Bayou fishermen, and the clips were edited together to make it seem like a race between his team of researchers and the fishermen to see who could catch the mythical voodoo shark faster. In reality, Davis was barely asked about the voodoo shark at all. His answers from unrelated questions were edited together to make it seem like he believed in its existence and was searching for it.
Davis isn’t the only one. Kristine Stump, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Shedd Aquarium, was featured in the Shark Week documentary Monster Hammerhead this week. The program is described as an exploration of a hammerhead shark that has been “patrolling” the shores of Florida for 60 years. (For the record, this is very unlikely because hammerhead sharks have an average life span of about 30 years.) Stump says this is not what she signed on for:
“The basic premise was a camera crew was dropping in on real scientists doing actual hammerhead research,” Stump said. “We’d talk about the research goals and the challenges we face in trying to achieve those goals. Monster Hammerhead does not match the description of what we filmed.”
What makes this all so tragic is that I do think there is a thirst for actual, scientific content. Vox notes that when the Discovery Channel aired the BBC documentary Life it had twice as many viewers as the Megalodon program. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey was also a hit. Why is the Discovery Channel purposefully using their power to mislead and misinform? They are making it harder to learn about the natural world and have lost our trust. It will be a long time before they get it back again.
Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Flickr