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Does Shark Week portrayal of sharks matter?

sharkI’ve been critical of factual inaccuracy and fearmongering on Shark Week documentaries for years. But how big of a problem is this, and how do we know? I asked some of the authors of three recent scientific studies*  to summarize the evidence.

Many species of sharks are in desperate need of conservation. Twenty-four percent of all known species of sharks, skates and rays are considered Threatened with extinction by the IUCN Red List. Using a variety of different methods, scientists have documented rapid and severe population declines in many species of sharks all over the world.

Conservation requires public support. In a participatory democracy, new policies and regulations require some public support to pass. It’s easy to get public support to conserve cute and cuddly animals, but ugly animals need protection too. So do animals that scare people, like sharks.

Media coverage of an issue influences public support. “More so than we often recognize, the media can shape how we view science and the environment by subtly reinforcing messages over time,” says Dr. Jessica Myrick of the Indiana University media school. “For example, the idea that sharks are a big threat to beachgoers is frequently highlighted by both news and infotainment media. Very few people are attacked by a shark each year, but you wouldn’t know that if you had a media diet heavy on the Discovery Channel. By showing sharks as a direct threat to human life, shows like Shark Week change the emotional context within which audiences will evaluate subsequent information about shark conservation”

Media coverage of shark-related issues is overwhelmingly and unrealistically negative. An old media cliche is “if it bleeds, it leads,” and that certainly seems to be the case for news coverage of shark issues. A 2012 study found that despite the extreme rarity of shark bites and the importance of shark conservation issues, almost 60% of all news articles published from 2000-2010 focus on shark biting people and portraying risks to humans from sharks. Only 15% focus on any kind of shark conservation issue. A detailed analysis of these media reports found that almost 40% of the “shark attacks” that got media coverage in the last 30 years did not involve a shark biting a human at all, leading to a call for the media to abandon the phrase “shark attack” entirely.

“The majority of information about sharks that reaches the general public usually involves reporting on attacks,” says Jason O’Bryhim, a Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University. “However, very rarely do you see anything about the overexploitation of sharks, or the illegal trade in shark products (e.g. fins in some areas). I think this skews the perception of the public on the status of shark populations. Most people don’t realize that less than 1% of attacks are fatal, while we kill millions of sharks every year.

Shark Week represents the largest audience for shark related news stories. Though ratings declined last year, tens of millions of Americans watch Shark Week every year, a much larger audience than even the most successful traditional news outlets. This represents the largest temporary increase in public attention to any ocean science or conservation issue of the year. “Shark Week” represents an amazing platform to help the public learn about sharks and create more support for shark conservation,” Jason O’Bryhim says. “However, I think few people currently come away with the right message or information necessary to create the necessary change.”

Many Shark Week documentaries focus on overhyped fearmongering. Each year, there are several Shark Week documentaries that focus entirely on sharks biting humans. This year, there is a SEQUEL to “great white serial killer”… talk about inflammatory language!  From watching these specials, you might think that all beachgoers (including you and your family) are at a serious risk of being bitten by a shark every time they go for a swim. These events are so rare, however, that I’ve seen several of the same shark bite incidents featured in multiple Shark Week documentaries. In reality, more people are bitten by other people on the New York City subway each year than are bitten by sharks in the whole world. More people are killed each year by vending machines, cows, and lawnmowers than by sharks. More (fictional) people have been killed onscreen by Jack Bauer during episodes of 24 than have been killed by every fatal shark bite worldwide (in which the species of shark has been identified) since the year 1580. 

Violent, fearmongering imagery in Shark Week specials makes people afraid of sharks. “Shark Week continues to portray sharks as threatening the majority of the time,” said Suzannah Evans, a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “And as our recent study showed, that’s what people took away from watching Shark Week. They are quite simply scared of sharks.”

Lots of people are afraid of sharks, which negatively influences support for shark conservation. “Media reports following shark bites play a significant role in public perceptions of sharks because wall to wall coverage makes these rare and random events seem more likely and more vicious,” says Dr. Christopher Neff of Sydney University. “There were 3 fatalities from sharks world-wide in 2014 but sensational shark “attack” coverage makes it seem like it was far worse. This impacts sharks directly because these perceptions increase fear of sharks and research shows that people who are more afraid prefer measures that kill sharks.”

Exposure to pro-conservation messages on Shark Week documentaries can make people more supportive of shark conservation.  Suzannah Evans’ study found that viewing a 30 second conservation public service announcement led to increased concern about the threatened status of sharks and increased support for shark conservation. Interestingly, the presence of a celebrity spokesperson did not increase the effectiveness of a conservation PSA. “These conservation messages can at least raise awareness, but they did not dampen the fear participants felt from watching clips of sharks attacking humans,” said Dr. Jessica Myrick.

“Conservation messaging still makes up a tiny portion of Shark Week content, said Evans. “Certainly, if the Discovery Channel spent more time talking about the human-caused threats facing sharks, such as overfishing for shark fin soup in Asia, more people would be educated. There is simply no more popular source of information about sharks than Shark Week.”

The pro-conservation effect of a PSA does not work as well when a conservation message is interspersed with violent, fearmongering imagery. “If the narrator is saying your risk of attack is low, but the imagery is still dramatic and intense, the fear is what sticks,” said Evans.

Jason O’Bryhim, agrees that conservation has not been much of a focus in past Shark Week documentaries. “I do not remember ever seeing a “Shark Week” program focused specifically on the conservation of sharks,” he said. “There is a little sound bite at the end of some programs about how sharks are in peril.”‘

Does Shark Week portrayal of sharks matter? Yes. It affects how people feel about sharks on a large scale, and how people feel about sharks influences support for conservation of threatened species. It matters.

Will it get better in the future? The new President of the Discovery Channel promises that they will no longer show fake documentariesHowever, no promises have been made concerning other issues with Shark Week, including the fearmongering and lack of focus on conservation issues. I am cautiously optimistic, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Shark Week 2015 begins Sunday July 5th, and I’ll be watching and tweeting fact-checks and commentary in real time.

*Suzannah Evans and Jessica Myrick, authors of Do PSAs Take a Bite Out of Shark Week? The Effects of Juxtaposing Environmental Messages With Violent Images of Shark Attacks

Jason O’Bryhim,  author of Increased knowledge about sharks increases public concern about their conservation)

Christopher Neff, co-author of Science, policy, and the public discourse of shark “attack”: a proposal for reclassifying human–shark interactions