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Shark Week and Sharkfest’s experts are mostly white men. Why? And does it matter?

Shark Week and Sharkfest’s experts are mostly white men. Why? And does it matter?
A great white shark, as seen in What the Shark (Photo by Gallo Images via National Geographic)

Here’s a fun exercise: Picture a scientist. What does that person look like? When kids have been asked, by researchers, to draw a scientist, those kids have typically drawn white men. Over the past 50 years, that’s improved, but kids still draw twice as many male scientists as female scientists.

What would happen if kids or adults drew a shark scientist after watching Shark Week this year? I’m wondering because, when Discovery Channel released its Shark Week 2020 schedule, every single scientist and researcher mentioned by name was a white man.

National Geographic’s Sharkfest, which spans two networks and five weeks, was not much better. In its announcement of 12 specials, it named eight experts, six of whom were white men.

When I asked both networks about their lack of diversity, both provided me with information about additional women and people of color featured, which we’ll explore below. And both networks cited a lack of diversity in marine biology as a reason why their shows mostly featured white, male, on-camera experts.

“I think that argument is tired. And a lot of people use that argument for everything,” said Jasmin Graham, a marine biologist and the co-founder of the new organization Minorities in Shark Science. “To say that there aren’t women in shark science is utterly ridiculous.”

“It definitely could be better—don’t get me wrong, it’s lacking in diversity—but the issue is that the people that are here get ignored,” she told me.

Minorities in Shark Science, or MISS, launched in mid-June in order “to form a support network, and a professional network for people that are dealing with these unique issues of not being seen or having their research more heavily criticized, either because they are a woman or because they’re a person of color or a mixture of both,” Graham said. “A lot of people leave the field for that reason, that get pushed out, and we want to make sure that people aren’t getting pushed out.”

The organization just started accepting members at the end of July. In only one week, 65 people joined, and all are women of color in shark science.

“For people to say, Oh, the interest isn’t out there, there’s not people studying sharks that are people of color. That’s just false. It’s that they don’t want to go look for them. They don’t want to go to an HBCU [Historically Black College or University],” Graham said. “If you recruit from like organizations and word of mouth, and you ask white men who they think should be on Shark Week, they’re going to point to other people like them.”

Why does it matter if Shark Week and Sharkfest have lots of white male scientists on screen? Dr. Catherine Macdonald, a marine conservation biologist, told me in an e-mail message that “the science is clear that representation matters in attracting and retaining members of historically excluded groups in STEM. Who we present as competent, brilliant scientists absolutely matters.” She pointed me to the Draw A Scientist Test studies I mentioned above, calling it “one of the best illustrations of that.”

“Many women and people of color still watch Shark Week and dream. My students often tell me it influenced them as children,” Macdonald added. “But they may also draw the conclusion from watching it that there are no (or very few) women or people of color working as shark scientists, and that therefore shark science might not be a very welcoming place for them. We need to change that perception, and we need to do the work to make sure that science actually is a welcoming, supportive place for all students.”

Shark Week and Sharkfest’s lack of diversity is “not just a function of sexism or racism,” Macdonald wrote, “but the lack of representation of diverse scientists does reflect choices, intentional and unintentional, that could be made differently.”

Networks and producers’ narrow focus cuts down on their options. “[I]f you want to make almost all your shows about a particular subset of sharks (mostly large ones with ‘bad’ reputations, like great whites, tigers, and bulls), that realistically includes a much smaller subset of researchers than shark science as a whole,” she wrote.

Jasmin Graham pointed out that the narrative on Shark Week is largely male, just like its network. “They want to portray this macho man versus shark thing, and they don’t look for other narratives, because that’s the narrative that they’re selling,” she said. “When you are a kid and you’re watching this, and you see all of these shark scientists, and they look a certain way, and you don’t look like that, you can’t relate. You don’t see yourself as a shark scientist.”

Graham noted that behind-the-scenes diversity matters, too. “If you only have one type of person doing the recruiting, they’re going to feel more comfortable with people like them. If you have a diversity of producers and writers and directors and photographers and everybody like that, then I think that you’ll start to see that same diversity reflected in front of the cameras.”

Macdonald told me that producers and networks “don’t have to be intentionally selecting for white men, but if you’re selecting for high profile research on the couple of most famous shark species using cutting-edge technology, your selection criteria are likely to yield mostly scientists who are well-resourced, structurally privileged, and established in their careers…so, white men.”

“If they went looking for the most interesting and exciting shark science stories they could find based on projects led by women and people of color, I think that approach would generate amazing programs,” she added. “But it wouldn’t focus nearly as intensely on the species or kinds of science that are currently featured.”

So let’s break down who is featured on both Shark Week and Sharkfest, and the differences between them.

Who did Shark Week choose to focus on?

Mike Tyson is at the center of Shark Week 2020's advertising, and stars in the special Tyson vs. Jaws: Rumble on the Reef
Mike Tyson is at the center of Shark Week 2020’s advertising, and stars in the special Tyson vs. Jaws: Rumble on the Reef (Photo by Discovery)

Shark Week leads with entertainment and celebrity: In 24 show descriptions in its initial press release, only seven shark experts or scientists were mentioned by name. By contrast, there were 10 celebrities and five Naked and Afraid contestants named.

As Dr. Kristine Stump, a marine biologist, tweeted after the list of shows was released, “In 24 show descriptions, there is not one single female scientist or scientist of color mentioned.”

Four of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week shows star Black celebrities: Will Smith, Snoop Dogg, Shaquille O’Neal, and Mike Tyson.

Tyson—who is at the center of this year’s advertising campaign as the star of a show called Tyson vs. Jaws, which is pretending that he will box a shark—served prison time for sexual assault in the 1990s. Tyson has also admitted to punching his ex-wife, Robin Givens, who just last week told Andy Cohen on his radio show that she’s disturbed by Tyson’s new book: “to hear someone say, ‘The best punch I ever threw was against Robin and she bounced from one wall to the next and was out.’ I’m literally praying that we’re in a climate where that’s not acceptable,” she said, according to Essence.

Discovery declined to comment on why featuring Tyson is acceptable to the network.

Of the 10 celebrities Shark Week promoted, zero are women. That may not be surprising, since the network’s target demographic is male. Last year, the Discovery Channel launched a new ad campaign, titled “The World is Ours,” and a 30-second promo briefly showed only one woman: a drone shot of a Naked and Afraid contestant, who was, of course, naked. “Ours,” it turned out, only meant men.

These are the seven scientists and experts mentioned in the show descriptions:

  1. “Wildlife biologist and conservationist Forrest Galante
  2. “Shark expert Chris Fallows” (two shows)
  3. Jeff Kurr (two shows)
  4. Dickie Chivell (two shows)
  5. Dr. Austin Gallagher
  6. Dr. Craig O’Connell
  7. Dr. Greg Skomal

In his analysis of this year’s Shark Week lineup, shark conservation biologist David Shiffman identified which shows are “fearmongering nonsense” or “pseudoscientific nonsense that has no business being on television” (that’s Great White Serial Killer Extinction). He also noted that one of those named scientists is problematic: “Forrest Galante is a person who regularly says untrue things about science and wildlife who should not be hosting educational TV shows.”

These are the celebrities Discovery highlighted in its press release:

  1. Mike Tyson
  2. “famed ring announcer Michael Buffer”
  3. Shaquille O’Neal
  4. YouTube stars Dude Perfect and Mark Rober
  5. Will Smith
  6. Snoop Dogg
  7. Adam Devine
  8. Anders Holm
  9. Blake Anderson
  10. five Naked and Afraid veterans — Matt Wright, Jeff Zausch, Serena and Amber Shine, and Alex Maynard

Of the three women mentioned in the entire press release, two were identified by name (both are Naked and Afraid contestants).

The other woman was described only as “a mother from North Carolina,” defining her only by motherhood, while the other people in the same list were described as “a California surfer, a Canadian thrill-seeker, [and] an Alabama football coach.”

Discovery’s press release did refer to other scientists but not by name, with phrases such as “teams of researchers” and “leading experts.” So I asked Discovery Channel for a list of those on-camera experts, and the network provided me with a list of 88 people featured across 20 shows.

Discovery Channel Shark Week 2020

Of those 88 people featured on Shark Week, 14 are women—though there are actually just 12 people, as two women each appear in two specials. Here they are, with Discovery’s descriptions of them in quotes:

  1. Dr. Lauren Meyer, “biochemical ecologist”
  2. Madeline Thiele, “PhD student”
  3. Alison Towner, “shark biologist” (two shows)
  4. Dr. Mareike Dornhege, “marine ecology”
  5. Laura McDonnell, “PhD student”
  6. Melissa Platt, “local fisher”
  7. Tracy Buckheim, “local fisher”
  8. Dr. Kristine Stump
  9. Christine de Silva, “conservation biologist” (two shows)
  10. Megan Winton, “student”
  11. Suzi Blake, “lifeguard”
  12. Alannah Vellacott, “marine biologist”

Including the repeat appearances, these women comprise about 16 percent of Shark Week’s on-camera talent. Of the 12 women, six are scientists, and three are identified as PhD students.

While there are four Black celebrities each leading their own Shark Week show, among the non-celebrities, there are just two are Black people:

  1. Andre Musgrove, a photographer and filmmaker
  2. Alannah Vellacott

Discovery declined to make an executive available for an interview. A network representative pointed out to me that some crew members, who may sometimes appear on camera, are Black people or people of color. But it’s notable to me that, in its announcement, Discovery chose to highlight only white men.

In June, the network retweeted a statement from its parent company, which said, “We’re donating to social justice orgs and developing a programming plan to help bring more understanding around core issues of systemic racism in the U.S.” One way to start would be with who it chooses to cast as experts on Shark Week.

NatGeo executive: ‘a challenge that we are going to rise to’

Marine biologist Kori Garza with stingrays on the Sharkfest special World's Biggest Tiger Shark
Marine biologist Kori Garza with stingrays on the Sharkfest special World’s Biggest Tiger Shark (Photo by Andy Brandy Casagrande IV/National Geographic)

National Geographic’s TV networks began its competing summer shark programming in 2013, and has openly admitted that it’s copying Shark Week. While Shark Fest lasts for five weeks this year, that time includes lots of repeats across two networks.

Sharkfest 2020’s programming announcement included 17 new hours of shark shows: one six-hour series, and 11 specials. Of the eight experts named in the NatGeo press release, seven were men, six of whom were white men.

That means there was just one woman, and just one man of color, mentioned in that initial release. Here’s the full list:

At my request, NatGeo provided a list of experts who are women and/or people of color featured across the 17 hours of new shows. Here’s that list, with NatGeo’s bios:

  • Frances Farabaugh, “marine ecologist”
  • Dr. Rhianna Neely-Murphy, “a climate change expert with a focus on environmental policy and risk management”
  • Dr. Sue Stuska, “a wildlife biologist at Cape Lookout National Seashore”
  • Dr. Tricia Meredith, an “assistant research professor at Florida Atlantic University”
  • Dr. Leslie Petrik, “an expert in water contamination and environmental remediation from the University of Western Cape”
  • Alex Suh, “an award-winning underwater photographer, avid shark diver and shark advocate”
  • Apryl Boyle, “a marine biologist and shark advocate with a focus on ocean acidification/climate”

In total, there are four people of color and seven women featured as on-camera talent on Sharkfest.

On Monday, National Geographic announced that next year’s Sharkfest will be led by a celebrity who’s also a white man: Chris Hemsworth.

Janet Han Vissering, the senior vice president of program development and production at NatGeo Wild, said in an interview that diversity and inclusion in Sharkfest and other programming “is of great importance to me” and “it’s something that’s of front of mind before even greater notice was being made earlier this year.” She said that’s in part “because I’m a person of color—I’m a Korean-born woman.”

“In the field of natural history filmmaking, diversity is rare,” Vissering said. “For me, being somebody of diversity, I’ve been given so many incredible welcome opportunities here at National Geographic, and one of my goals is to keep expanding that.”

For Sharkfest’s programming, Vissering told me that “really, the biggest stars of our shows are the sharks,” but added that, for its “factual shark shows,” diversifying the on-camera talent is “a challenge that we are going to rise to.”

“Behind the scenes, it is absolutely a huge, huge push. I work with four very incredible female executive producers who are behind every one of these shows,” Vissering said. About half of Sharkfest programs come from internal development, and then are outsourced to production companies, while the others are pitched to them.

“We work with what is the latest science,” she said, suggesting that the lack of diversity may reflect that world: “maybe it’s about publishing, maybe it’s about people who are out in the field.” Thus, when the network is “selecting stories,” they’re doing so from a pool that “is already skewing very heavily white male.”

When I asked about the press release that emphasized white men—naming six white men and only one woman and one person of color, even though there were more people of color featured on Sharkfest shows—Vissering said, “everything that we do on a daily basis, the next day is a learning process for us. Having things pointed out is a great point for us to pivot and improve next time.”

Vissering demonstrated that during our conversation, when I mentioned Minorities in Shark Science. She said, “I just wrote down ‘MISS’ … I would love to explore this area, and reach out and see how we could include them.”

“There’s a barrier for them to coming to us, and that’s something that I want to break down, [to] encourage people of diverse backgrounds to bring those stories to us,” she added.

Vissering said she recognizes how important on-camera representation is, and that National Geographic Channels—and the media—play “a huge part” as they “encourage diversity in these fields.”

“If I see me on television,” she said, “I am more apt to possibly look at that as an opportunity.”

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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