Last night (June 12th), if you flipped to the Discovery Channel, you'd see that they were still airing the Megalodon show, despite substantial public outrage. A once prestigious and respected natural channel, I believe Discovery has been on the decline when it comes to quality, educational shows. Personally, I haven't flipped to the channel since last Shark Week (my father and brother decided to taunt me by watching the silly show as I typed this post up furiously).
The problem? Well, for one, starting a popular media week with a fake documentary that has little disclaimers saying it is fake discredits genuinely educational shows. We might as well introduce unicorns and sharks into these so-called "documentaries."
Not all hope is lost, though!
Shark Week (Discovery Channel’s week-long shark program) does something really important that scientists seldom can do: it gets people discussing sharks. While scientists can churn out dozens of papers regarding these chomp-prone animals, the media drastically increases coverage of shark topics every year during this week. According to Upwell, a non-government organization (NGO) that observes ocean/marine media trends, Shark Week is the cause for the greatest increase in Twitter conversations about marine and conservation issues per year. The 27-year-old Shark Week reeled in 21.4 million viewers last year (2013) alone. Try having a published paper get that much attention.
However, this increased public interest has its faults. Many Shark Week documentaries focus on “shark attacks.” “Shark attacks” is in quotations as the world’s largest professional organization of shark scientists, the American Elasmobranch Society, has replaced that phrase with “shark encounter,” a more accurate and less inflammatory wording scaled to real risks and outcomes. The word “attack” strikes fear in the hearts of the public, making them think sharks are lurking in the water, poised to sniff humans out. In reality, the average American is more likely to die from being struck by lightning, heart attacks, smushed by vending machines or being trampled by cows. Yet, these statistics aren't splayed across headlines. This disproportional perception is dangerous, leading the public to vote for policies that hurt shark conservation methods and make funding for shark conservation programs harder.
However, while the 2013 “I Escaped Jaws” documentary focused on “shark attacks,” it did highlight how many of these encounters can be prevented. The documentary used footage of the shark bites and not dramatic re-enactments (+1). The victims interviewed discussed how they don’t blame the sharks, realize their actions were a mistake and 100% support shark conservation. THAT is more important than people give credit for. To hear from a victim that they do not blame the shark is a great way to get shark conservation started.This is also a step in the right direction, showcasing how many shark bites are caused by preventable mistakes done by humans and not just the animals hunting humans out. A glimmer of hope in an otherwise spiraling media frenzy.
The worst part of Shark Week, in my opinion, is not dramatically sensationalized reality, but the airing of “mock-umentaries” (mock documentaries), where actors pose as experts in the shark field. Shark Week 2013 started its week by airing “Megalodon: The Monster Lives,” where “experts” have "convincing evidence" that the long-extinct Megalodon still swims our modern oceans. This was an outrage because the show was aired in the context of an educational program with vague disclaimers that the show was not based on fact. To the general public, mermaids and giant sharks roam the seas—and they are terrified.
The most infuriating part of this? Discovery Channel defended itself.
There are a few okay programs to make up for the train wrecks. Last year (2013), “Return of Jaws” focused on the research that Dr. Greg Skomal is carrying out with great white sharks in New England. “Spawn of Jaws” discussed Dr. Michael Domeier’s work with great white sharks, where he analyzed data (from migration patterns), which can aid in conservation. “Alien Sharks of the Deep,” ALL about the biodiversity of the deep, was hands down the golden hour of the week. This natural history documentary had Twitter absolutely exploding with questions.
THAT is what Shark Week should be about, in my opinion. Teasing the public with information about these fascinating animals and feeding them facts. Inspiring them to look at sharks in a different light than the media portrays them. Providing them a week full of facts and research, where they can trust they will learn.
I've sat through many phony shows, educating my friends on what's fact and what's there for the TV ratings. As a member of the generation who relies on technology the most, I hope to take advantage of the increased public interest to inject science and proven facts/research into the discussion.
Most shark facts don’t ever show up on Shark Week and, as scientists committed to conserving this species, we should be the ones initiating the conversation on such a public platform—even if it only captures the attention of some for just a week each year.
Keep that in mind as Shark Week 2014 fast approaches on Sunday, August 10th, @ 9/8C.