Did David Attenborough Behave Unethically?

by Chris Palmer

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Earlier this month, the Daily Mirror in Great Britain revealed that famed zoologist David Attenborough, for his 7-part television series Frozen Planet, filmed polar bears in a zoo while leading viewers to believe that the animals were filmed in the subzero Arctic wilderness.

The Daily Mirror scoop led to negative publicity for the BBC, including a damaging investigation by the Sunday Telegraph.

While the narration by Attenborough is technically accurate, the powerful imagery seduced viewers into thinking that the cubs were wild, not captive, and that they were filmed in their natural habitat, not in an artificially constructed den in a zoo.

The BBC does explain clearly on the series’ website how the zoo footage was shot. But comparatively few people will see that because few viewers will explore the companion website, and the explanatory clip is buried in lots of other stories.

The “behind the scenes” short film that concludes the program contains no mention of the manipulation.

The truth is out there, but only if viewers are willing to make the effort to find it.

David Attenborough is deservedly a towering and revered figure. He is a brilliant journalist, trusted zoologist, broadcasting pioneer, and fascinating writer. His credibility is unequalled and the world rightly honors him for his educational and conservation accomplishments. He has made amazing contributions to saving the natural world and teaching people about its value, and he devoted the 7th program of Frozen Planet to climate change, when many networks and other on-air hosts would never be brave enough to do that. (According to press reports, the Discovery Channel in the US seriously toyed with the idea of not broadcasting the 7th program.)

Frozen Planet is a documentary, not a movie. Viewers expect what they see to be genuine, authentic, and truthful. But the BBC was correct to film tiny polar bear cubs and their mother in a zoo. It is impossible to capture that footage in a real den in the wild. To even attempt that would be egregiously irresponsible. No one is suggesting that this should have been attempted. No one should harass polar bears in the wild.

While I commend the BBC for revealing the truth on their website, I think the network should have been even more transparent. The BBC’s own editorial guidelines state that when using captive animals to obtain footage (because it is unsafe or impractical to film something in the wild), “we must never claim that such sequences were shot in the actual locations depicted in the film.” By failing to disclose the zoo setting on the screen, the BBC violated this guideline.

When file footage is used (as in this case), it is best to add some small text, low in the frame, with words such as “zoo footage” or “file footage.” This would have avoided the situation in which viewers felt let down and misled when the truth emerged in newspaper articles. Such text would only need to be on the screen for a few opening seconds of the footage.

Had the BBC added this small text, there might have been a slight diminution of the “atmosphere” for the viewer. Attenborough has been quoted as justifying the staging on the grounds that the experience for viewers would be diminished if they were told the footage was shot in a zoo. But such feelings would be minor compared to the feelings of dismay when viewers read the story in the press and realize, contrary to their understanding from watching the program, the polar bears cubs were captive and controlled.

Labeling the zoo footage would also have reminded viewers that the BBC has the highest possible standards and that everything not so labeled (virtually the whole film) was filmed in the wild under severe and punishing conditions worthy of applause and acclamation.

An alternative option would be to run a prominent disclaimer in the end credits. For example, “A few scenes were filmed under controlled conditions.”

Will this incident encourage viewers to question the rest of what they see in Frozen Planet? Will they wonder if other sequences are staged, fraudulent, or faked in some way? The danger is that viewers might become cynical and stop paying attention to the important messages in these programs, messages about the need to conserve our natural resources.

The BBC has high ethical standards compared to other networks and it attaches importance to scientific accuracy and to not disturbing animals when filming. Hopefully the BBC will continue to serve as a model for other networks. Fakery, manipulation, and staging is common in wildlife films, including the use of phony sound, animals from game farms, sets to film small animals and birds, computer graphics, and more.

As for the zoo footage, it warrants a discussion, but not histrionics. It’s a minor blemish on Attenborough’s supremely good record. Did he behave unethically? The incident is too small to warrant such a harsh judgment. Nevertheless, in documentaries, staged footage should be labeled as such to ensure that the trust between filmmakers and their audiences remains strong.

Note: Frozen Planet recently aired in the UK, and it debuts in the US on the Discovery Channel on March 18.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/The Canadian Press,Jonathan Hayward, 2007

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