Myrick, JG and Evans, SD. 2014. Do PSAs take a bite out of shark week?:The effects of juxtaposing environmental messages with violent images of shark attacks. Science Communication, 36(5): 544-569.
O’Bryhim, JR and Parsons, ECM. 2015. Increased knowledge about sharks increases public concern about their conservation. Marine Policy, 56: 43-47.
‘Shark Week’ – The Pinnacle of Summer Television
The Discovery Channel’s ‘Shark Week’ is one of the most highly anticipated summer television events each year. Since its inception in 1988, it has grown in popularity to become one of the most widely viewed summer television events around the world. Although Shark Week initially focused on shark conservation and education, the last decade saw a shift to entertainment-focused programming rather than focusing on education. Over the years, Shark Week programming has begun to show more and more footage of violent shark attacks (or dramatized recreations of violent shark attacks). Many scientists and conservationists believe that this media hype around shark attacks (which, in reality, are incredibly rare) fuels the general public’s fear of sharks. Furthermore, this unjustified fear of sharks may be a major barrier preventing their effective conservation, despite the fact that global shark populations are declining and 25% of all shark species are either threatened, endangered, or critically endangered.
Studying the Influence of Shark Week
There are only two scientific studies to date that I could find that directly addressed Shark Week’s impact on the public’s view of sharks. First, Myrick and Evans conducted an online survey of over 500 people that compared the responses of viewers to content from Shark Week vs. educational public service announcements (PSAs) created by environmentalist organizations. Participants watched a 3-minute clip from Shark week that either contained violent shark attacks or dramatized recreations of violent shark attacks, followed by either a PSA about shark conservation delivered by a celebrity spokesperson, a PSA with no celebrity present, or an unrelated “attention control” commercial. Other studies have shown that celebrity endorses can be effective in increasing support for issues like HIV/AIDs prevention, quitting smoking, etc. which inspired the investigation of the celebrity endorsers for shark conservation. The authors were trying to learn if PSAs “could take a bite out of” Shark Week’s violent portrayal of sharks.
The second study, by O’Bryhim and Parsons, conducted an in person survey of 186 individuals to assess their prior knowledge about sharks and whether or not this is correlated with their attitude towards shark conservation. The respondents were asked a series of questions about shark biology to determine their prior knowledge of sharks as well as where they obtained this information. Respondents were then asked how they feel about the importance and need for shark conservation.
What We Know About Shark Week’s Impact on the Public’s View on Sharks
Many factors contribute to the beliefs that a person holds on any one subject, including personal experiences, age, education level, culture, politics, where their information was derived from, and so on. Furthermore, many of these factors interact with one another, creating a very complex collection of variables that result in a person’s beliefs. This makes studying what factors may influence a person’s attitudes towards shark conservation inherently difficult. However, these two studies are a valuable first step in identifying what factors may contribute the most to our views about sharks.
For instance, in both studies, demographic data like age, gender, and education level had little to no relation to knowledge or opinions on sharks. The Myrick and Evans study found that watching videos of violent shark attacks cause a person to over-estimate their risk of being a victim of a shark attack, compared to those who do not watch videos of violent shark attacks. This finding agrees with many studies that have found that people who watch crime dramas on television over-estimate their risk of being a victim of a crime. They also found that dramatized recreations of shark attacks had the same effect as real footage and that celebrity endorsed PSAs and non-celebrity endorsed PSAs did not counteract this effect. This study demonstrates that a short clip promoting the value of shark conservation is not sufficient to overpower our strong fear response to watching shark attack footage. This information highlights the potential for dramatized Shark Week footage to skew the public’s view of sharks in a negative manner.
O’Bryhim and Parsons, on the other hand, found that increased knowledge about sharks is correlated with increased action towards shark conservation. Most interestingly, respondents who previously viewed shark week were more likely (31.2%) to believe that shark conservation was urgent than non-shark week viewers (19.6%). Additionally, people who scored well on their shark knowledge were more likely to have watched Shark Week in recent years. These findings demonstrate the potential for quality educational programming about sharks to increase awareness and action for shark conservation.
The Role of Shark Week on Viewers and the Role of Viewers on Shark Week
If you follow Shark Week at all, you have likely heard about the backlash over 2013 and 2014 programming. During this time, Shark Week stooped to unseen before lows by airing several “docufictions” or “mockumentaries” where paid actors pretended to be real scientists supporting complete falsehoods and myths. Shark Week 2013 debuted with the most widely criticized of these mockumentaries, “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives.” This episode broke the record for the most viewed show in Shark Week history. And it was all a big, fat, misleading, lie. Contrary to the title, Megalodon is not alive. It has been extinct for over 2 million years. But besides simply tricking people into thinking there might be a huge shark out there in the ocean, this show also insinuated shark violence by basing the whole show off of a recreational boat that went missing off the coast of South Africa, suggesting that Megalodon ate the boat. They also showed footage that made it appear as though the researchers were attacked by Megalodon, but escaped before they were able to capture any videographic evidence of it. There are countless other examples of falsehoods and exaggerations that have been made, at times even at the expense of legitimate shark scientists.
The scientific and conservation communities made an uproar over this sort of programming, sharply criticizing Discovery Channel for the move. The good news is Discovery Channel seems to have listened. The new president of Discovery Channel has promised not to include docufictions in Shark Week programming and 2015 showed great improvements over 2013-2014. I plan to tune in, with hopes of seeing quality scientific research being highlighted on many species of sharks (not just Great Whites), and minimal distortion of facts. Let’s be clear, the Discovery Channel is in the business of entertainment. It is up to the viewers to demonstrate the entertainment in quality educational programming about fascinating sharks and the lack of desire for horror films masquerading as documentaries.