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Scientists watched 32 years of Shark Week. What they discovered is devastating.

Scientists watched 32 years of Shark Week. What they discovered is devastating.
Reef sharks at the Cairns Aquarium. (Photo by David Clode/Unsplash)

Discovery Channel’s summer tradition Shark Week is immensely popular, and some of its content has also drawn criticism from shark researchers and scientists, adding to its sketchy 33-year history.

Some of those experts decided to document exactly what Shark Week was presenting to the world because, “as scientists, we like numbers so we can actually stand behind our criticism,” Dr. Lisa Whitenack said during a July 22 presentation at the American Elasmobranch Society Conference. It was titled “Content analysis of 32 years of Shark Week: trends in messaging, subject matter, and portrayal of sharks.”

Whitenack and a group of researchers and scientists watched and analyzed 201 out of the 272 Shark Week specials—”as many episodes as we could”—that aired prior to 2021. Those researchers are Whitenack, associate professor of biology and geology at Allegheny College; Dr. David Shiffman of Arizona State University’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences; Dr. Catherine Macdonald, lecturer at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami, and director of the Field School; Brady Mickle, a student at Allegheny College; Julia Saltzman, a student at the University of Miami; and Dr. Stephen Kajiura, a professor at Florida Atlantic University.

Their findings, as Allegheny College summarized in a press release, was “that Shark Week is also deeply flawed in ways that undermine its goals, potentially harming both sharks and shark scientists.” So let’s look at the actual data, some of which surprised the researchers.

Jaws! Great White! Attack! Bite!

A great white shark, as seen in What the Shark
A great white shark, as seen in What the Shark on NatGeo’s Sharkfest (Photo by Gallo Images via National Geographic)

The first part of Shark Week that we see are the show’s titles, and researchers found that 21.7 percent the shows they examined had titles with negative words, such as attack, fear, deadline, bite, and monster, and also blood, danger, and invasion. The most-common words:

  • Jaws
  • Great White
  • Attack
  • Bite

But those are titles, and they’re mostly marketing devices, designed to get people to tune in. What do you get when you actually watch Shark Week? The researchers categorized the episodes based on their primary focus, and what they found was “a little bit better than we thought it would be,” Whitenack said during her presentation.

  • Research, 36.6 percent
  • Natural history, 16.2 percent
  • Shark bites, 15.2 percent
  • Diving with sharks, 14.7 percent
  • Mythical/legendary sharks, 6.8 percent
  • Clip shows, 5.8 percent
  • Other, 4.7 percent

Viewers who watch those episodes are getting a mix of messages: negative, positive, and conservation-focused. “We’re getting contradictory messaging,” Whitenack said. “Usually what we heard was a bunch of fear-mongering, negative stuff with a tossed-out, but they’re really not hurting us.” She said that means “the positive messaging is not getting through.”

Incredibly, the researchers found that “no actionable steps are usually given—only six episodes gave something that people could do.” That’s six out of 201 episodes.

When they looked at the specific research that was featured, they found that Shark Week specials contained:

  • No research, 16.3 percent
  • Other, 15.5 percent
  • Acoustic telemetry, 14.1 percent
  • Cameras/drones/BRUVs/ROVs, 13.2 percent
  • Satellite telemetry, 12.7 percent
  • Measurements/photogammetry, 5.9 percent
  • Photo ID, 4.8 percent
  • Genetics, 4.2 percent
  • Blood, 2.8 percent
  • Stomach contents, 2.8 percent
  • Bite analysis, 2.5 percent
  • Fincam/camera tag, 2.5 percent
  • Ultrasound, 2.5 percent

What this shows, Whitenack explained, is that “our field isn’t really being accurately represented.” That’s because the top-three areas of focus among members of the American Elasmobranch Society are reproduction, movement, and age/growth. The research that’s being featured is also the kind that’s expensive, which “narrows down the folks we can actually feature in these episodes—folks that have a lot of money,” Whitenack explained. That often means “leaving out early-career researcher … or countries that don’t have the financial backing.”

What kinds of sharks get starring roles? They found a total of 79 currently living species were featured, which was more than they researchers expected. There were also four extinct sharks featured.

The great white is the most-commonly featured, followed by tiger sharks, bull sharks, hammerheads, and lemon sharks. That means mostly sharks that are “not endangered or critically endangered,” Whitenack said. Compare that to the top five sharks studied by actual scientists: lemon, white, bonnethead, sawfish, and sandbar.

Shark Week does not reflect actual shark scientists

Marine biologist Alison Towner and Expedition Unknown's Josh Gates on a Shark Week special
Marine biologist Alison Towner and Expedition Unknown’s Josh Gates on a Shark Week special. (Photo by Discovery Channel)

Shark Week shows have celebrities and Discovery Channel personalities as their stars, but there are actual shark scientists and experts who make appearances or even star in episodes.

The researchers looked at all the experts featured, and then looked at what those people had contributed to shark science by examining their publication records. While 27.5 percent have more than 50 publications, more than one-fifth, 22.1 percent, had never published.

It gets worse. Shark Week’s experts are not diverse:

  • 78.4 percent are male
  • 20.6 percent are female
  • 93.1 percent are white or white-passing
  • 6.9 percent are not white
  • 0 percent were people who use nonbinary pronouns or identified as trans

So how does that compare to actual shark researchers? Of course, if shark research itself is this white and male, it’d make sense that Shark Week reflects that. But Whitenack said “we call shenanigans on that,” because the reality is the opposite. AES members are 55.8 percent female and 33 percent not white. In its one year of existence, Minorities in Shark Science has more than 300 members.

Whitenack described another finding: “there are more non-experts named Mike than women who have been featured in more than five episodes.”

So to summarize, in its 33 years, Discovery’s Shark Week has taken a profession that, in reality, is more than 50 percent female and one-third people of color, and misrepresented it on screen by casting 78 percent men and 93 percent white people.

Shark Week mostly focuses on sharks that are not endangered, gives titles to its series that play to our fear of sharks, and then fills episodes with mixed messages and research that’s not not representative of the work of actual scientists. Sometimes it airs outright misinformation and lies. And then it gives viewers basically no actionable advice.

All of this seems far more destructive and damaging than helpful to me. So what should Discovery Channel do? The researchers suggest these four things:

  1. Feature more diversity of experts and actual experts
  2. More fact-based and positive programming
  3. Add actionable conservation content
  4. Less fear-based and contradictory programming

Will Discovery do any of that? Do they even care about what they’re putting into the world, as long as it makes the money?

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  • 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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