An open letter to new Discovery Channel President Rich Ross from a shark scientist

Dear Rich Ross, new President of the Discovery Channel,

I was excited to learn about your commitment to no longer show fake documentaries on the Discovery Channel. These shows have been incredibly damaging not only to Discovery’s goals of being the “number one non-fiction media company in the world” by”telling compelling and accurate stories,” but to public understanding of science and conservation. In recent years, the Discovery Channel has tried hard to actively muddle the fact that these documentaries were fake, including hiding vague disclaimers at the very end.  I’ve spoken to hundreds of schoolchildren about sharks, and every time someone asks me about megalodon or mermaids.  Viewers believed that they were real, and your channel actively bragged about the fact that people believed that they were real.

By claiming that megalodon isn’t extinct and mermaids are real but the government is covering this up, these shows resulted in scientists receiving threats and harassment,  and resulted in important government agencies getting so many angry phone calls that they had to issue public statements. Producers for some of these shows intentionally lied to scientists to convince them to appear onscreenintentionally lied to journalists about the facts behind them,  and intentionally caused a real-life public panic. They actually showed a documentary about a legendary (read as “fake”)  shark called Hitler. In short, I will be glad to see Shark Week and the Discovery Channel return to your roots of fact-based programming.

However, while “we won’t actively lie to viewers anymore” is an important step that I applaud, Shark Week and other Discovery Communications programs have many other problems that should be addressed. Shark Week 2014’s “Zombie Sharks” glorified wildlife harassment for no reason, as the entire stated goal of the show was for a non-scientist with a history of wildlife harassment to try to answer a question that scientists have known the answer to for decades. This problem is not limited to Zombie Sharksbut pervades Discovery Communications shows.

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