Why Shark Week is irresponsible

Apr 27, 2011 by

Why Shark Week is irresponsible

“Teeth of death,” “Shark feeding frenzy,” “The Worst Shark Attack Ever.” It is that time of year again, when the Discovery Channel brings out shows like these as part of its annual “Shark Week” programming. This week of bloody feeding frenzies and vicious shark attacks is part of a larger trend in nature programming. Instead of seeking to educate or to promote environmental conservation, these shows focus only on presenting graphic, sensationalized animal violence. Programs like those in Shark Week – while they might garner high ratings and attract advertiser dollars – all too often mislead the audience, exploit animals, and fail to promote conservation.

It is easy to understand why Shark Week or other shows like “Untamed and Uncut”, “Man vs. Wild”, or “When Animals Attack” would attract viewers. The subject matter is riveting, the editing is flashy, and the shows are thrilling and suspenseful. As nature writer Bill McKibben once quipped, the most popular documentaries consist of “big cats alternatively mating and killing each other.” Shows like Animal Planet’s “Untamed and Uncut” take this to a new level with footage of a marlin impaling a boy’s face, a lion mauling a zookeeper, and a polar bear ripping off a woman’s leg. This brand of mayhem and mutilation has an eager audience and has turned the nature film genre into an entertainment juggernaut.

However, even worse than these programs’ shameless appeals to viewers’ basest instincts is their impact on the wildlife they show. In a time when sharks face increased threat from shark finning, overfishing, and pollution (including the devastating oil spill in the Gulf), programs that depict them as vicious, man-eating killers only make it more difficult to convince the public of the need to protect them. We applaud Discovery Channel’s partnership with Senator John Kerry to help end shark finning, but the general effect of the graphic Shark Week programming is not to promote conservation but to instill fear, terror, and hatred in the viewer.

In reality, wild creatures spend most of their time resting or finding food. Obviously, a feeding frenzy makes for more exciting footage, but showing such a disproportionate amount of violence gives a dangerously skewed view of animals. While it would be just as misleading to suggest that animals never hunt and kill, there is a major difference between showing the dispassionate reality of nature, and creating whole programming out of only the most gory and gruesome details.

Discovery videographers with sharkHowever, in the rush for ratings and with limited funding, some filmmakers will do almost anything to get these “money shots” – sensationalizing animal behavior, staging or digitally altering scenes to deceive viewers, and frequently getting too close to dangerous creatures. One of the least expensive ways to create content is to send someone like Jeff Corwin or the late Steve Irwin to grab at animals and make them seem menacing and dangerous. These programs not only misrepresent the animals, but also involve the harassment and abuse of animals and suggest that such behavior is acceptable. Responsible filmmakers invest the time and money it takes to film animals over long periods of time without disturbing them. They take pains to keep their distance, to avoid disrupting the environment, and to present a balanced, accurate view of the animals.

Some defenders of the new wave of sensationalized, graphic nature shows argue that by being more exciting, these programs draw in viewers who would otherwise never be interested in nature. Creating interest in wildlife and the environment is a worthy accomplishment, but relying on graphic violence is taking the easy way out. And there is no justification for abusing wildlife or deceiving the audience. Filmmakers must use the story-telling techniques they would employ in any other kind of creative work – powerful visuals, interesting characters, compelling drama, humor – in order to engage viewers and create ethically responsible programming.

Networks, studios, and filmmakers need to improve the quality of their work and invest in nature shows that encourage conservation and entertain without misleading. However, viewers must also take responsibility for the programs they watch. We cannot expect to see more ethical, responsible filmmaking as long as we continue to support those shows that sensationalize and exploit animals.

Photo Credit: Paolo Macorig@ Flickr

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16 Comments

  1. Hey All, Chris Palmer, the author of this article just left a comment upon seeing all of you comments here, which transferred over to The Journal from Facebook:

    “Chris Palmer here! I’m much enjoying all the comments and feedback! Thank you. It’s important we save sharks and vital that we put an end to shark finning. Sharks are extraordinary animals that deserve to be saved, not slaughtered.”

  2. Lane Aldridge via Facebook

    @Valli: yes, it made me cry when I saw it. Just plain sweet.

  3. Chris Palmer here! I’m much enjoying all the comments and feedback! Thank you. It’s important we save sharks and vital that we put an end to shark finning. Sharks are extraordinary animals that deserve to be saved, not slaughtered.

  4. Holy Moly, Lane! That was fantastic!!!! Thanks for that link.

  5. Mandi Pippin via Facebook

    There are a few more, but they are all from the chopper.

  6. Lane Aldridge via Facebook

    I wish they had zoomed in on them–can’t really know they are sharks except for being told it’s so. Would love to see them more closely. Would be beautiful.

  7. Mandi Pippin via Facebook

    THIS, however is real!! 😉 http://youtu.be/R5BsNSTJdY4

  8. Mandi Pippin via Facebook

    I believed it….

  9. Mandi Pippin via Facebook

    @ Lane , that one IS beautiful, I agree!! Can you imagine being here with this world record shark??!! Largest great white shark ever photographed!! http://www.outdoors720.com/2011/04/50-foot-great-white-shark-photographed.html

  10. Lane Aldridge via Facebook

    Brooke, have you seen this? ‘Beautiful’ is not a big enough word….
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WK2LpUoqX6A

  11. Mandi Pippin via Facebook

    You know this made me happy!!! 😉 Snuggley wuggley wittle sharkies!!! I will hug them and squeeze them and call them George!! 😉

  12. Those movies did get a lot of people to be afraid of sharks. But the truth of the matter is, they are not fond of humans and are far from being our predators. If they bite a human, it is probably because they see a wet suit and think they are a seal. But there is a reason they only take a bite and move on. Humans do NOT taste good. With all of the junk we put in our bodies that is contrary to what we should be eating, they simply do not find us tasty! Also, most shark species are much smaller than the ones they show on the screen.

  13. In answer to your question Brooke. “is it an accurate picture?” absolutely not. For years while fishing along the Ventura County coastline I killed sharks indiscriminatly because I had been told and actually believed that all sharks were a menace. It took Marine biologist Jerry Straughan (The same Jerry Strauhan that was on the Rubber Bomb Sneaky, the Poor Man’s Kon Tiki with me when we were much younger) to teach me the truth about sharks. They are a very necessary part of the food chain as well as sentinals of the deep whose sole purpose for being is to keep the oceans clean. They are the janitors of the seas, not only feasting on dead sealife but also keeping the populations of seals, sea lions, and other residents of the oceans in check. It is not a pretty sight to see sharks attacking some other swimming animal but it is very proper in the order of living in the ocean. I stopped the practice of killing sharks and if one got on my line I would, very carefully, remove the hook and let the poor hungry beast go. There were times, I swear, when I was sure I saw gratitude in the beady eyes as I was putting them back in the water…It always made me feel a lot better when they swam away…

  14. Thank you, my friend!!! Much appreciated!!

  15. Excellent link, Rose!!! Thank you, so, so much, my friend! oxo!