Shark Week began last night. As a PhD candidate studying shark ecology at the University of Miami, I have a love/hate relationship with the annual marathon of shark-themed documentaries. I love that the Discovery Channel spends so much time talking about my favorite group of animals — but I hate that so much of what's being said is wildly, ridiculously inaccurate, often so inaccurate that you have to laugh or you'll cry. To try to correct some of the nonsense, I've used Twitter every Shark Week for the past four years to fact-check and provide snarky commentary in real time.
For these efforts, the Tampa Bay Times and the Miami New Times have called me "Shark Week's Biggest Critic." That's a bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but I have been critical, and I criticize because I care. It's a big problem that Shark Week shares incorrect information about sharks. Due largely to overfishing, sharks are one of the most threatened groups of vertebrates on the planet, and it is much harder to get people to want to protect them when inflammatory media portrayals terrify everyone.
Despite inflammatory media coverage, sharks are not a significant threat to human safety. Many species play a critical role in regulating the coastal ecosystems that millions of Americans depend on for food, employment, and recreation. Shark Week could be an enormous force for good for public ocean science and conservation literacy, if only it would stop with all the fearmongering pseudoscientific nonsense.
Here are the biggest problems I've witnessed on Shark Week over the past few years.
Some of the programs on Shark Week are completely fake
Many of the problems with Shark Week are obvious and egregious. In 2013, Shark Week ran a fake documentary claiming that Carcharocles megalodon, an extinct shark that's basically a 40-foot-long great white, is actually still alive and killing people. The show used CGI video, photoshopped images, and actors pretending to be experts. It also claimed that the US government and the mainstream scientific community were actively lying to you about this.
Many people believed that this fake megalodon documentary was true, and I don't blame them. It aired on an educational TV channel, and there were only brief, vaguely worded disclaimers at the end of the credits. It was especially troubling when Shark Week actively bragged about the fact that lots of viewers believed it was real.
Real scientists (including me) were threatened and harassed because of the first megalodon special, and the Discovery Channel was heavily criticized in the media for it. So, of course, the next year the network commissioned and aired Megalodon: The New Evidence.
This special used real media criticism of the first documentary as "evidence" of a deep conspiracy against them for daring to show "the truth." It's harder to get people to care about protecting sharks when they're afraid, and it's harder to get them to trust scientists and government officials when documentaries portray us as villains.
Even when they're not fake, some shows focus on myths rather than science or conservation
There's a genre of Shark Week documentaries focusing on trying to find a local "legendary" individual shark. Last year, this genre included looking for a giant shark nicknamed "Old Hitler," which, let me tell you, I didn't enjoy very much as a Jewish marine biologist. The "legendary" shark they're hunting for is almost always much larger than that species can actually grow, has been around for much longer than that species can actually live, and acts in a way that is inconsistent with everything we know about shark behavior.
I understand that the goals of an entertainment television network may vary from the goals of a science teacher, but one can be entertaining while still being accurate. Also, has anyone else ever noticed that they never, ever actually find a shred of evidence that the legendary shark they're looking for exists? Because that, to me, is not particularly entertaining.
Many shows feature dubious "experts"
Entirely too many Shark Week specials focus on a supposed "shark expert" who has no formal training or credentials and, more importantly, doesn't seem to actually know anything about sharks. One certainly doesn't need to be a scientist to be a shark expert, but perhaps Discovery should at least interview a trained and credentialed expert to make sure that what is being said isn't total nonsense.
In 2013's Sharkpocalypse, hosts claimed that incidents of sharks biting people are increasing because there aren't enough sharks, so there are too many seals, so there are too many sharks. Huh? An actual expert could have told them that shark bites aren't really increasing very much, and essentially all of the increase can be attributed to more people going in the water and increasing media coverage of even minor bites.
The 2014 special Zombie Sharks promoted grabbing and restraining sharks and making them pass out in the name of answering a question about shark behavior, although actual scientists had answered that question — whether sharks' predators flip over sharks to more easily kill them — decades ago.
I hate that so much of what's being said is often so inaccurate that you have to laugh or you'll cry
Sometimes Shark Week shows do feature scientists — but even then, problems sometimes arise. Some Shark Week producers have misled scientists to get them to participate in documentaries, and later edited their interview responses to make it seem like they were responding to totally separate questions that no serious scientist would address.
And you'd never know that there are marine biologists who aren't white males from the experts Shark Week chooses to feature. This prompted a friend to complain that Discovery would rather promote the existence of extinct giant sharks than diverse scientists. Last year, Shark Week displayed a viewer tweet commenting on the physical appearance of the only featured female researcher on the bottom of the TV broadcast.
Diversity in science is important, and media representation plays a significant role in encouraging young women and underrepresented minorities to pursue a career in science. By presenting a nearly all-white, all-male set of scientists, Shark Week does a disservice to the future of the discipline.
Shark Week stokes unnecessary fear in its audience
The fearmongering tone of many Shark Week specials is a consistent problem. Many documentaries focus on sharks biting people and give viewers the impression that this is a serious danger that you and your family need to worry about. These events are so rare that I've actually seen the same bites featured on multiple documentaries.
The inflammatory word "invasion" is used repeatedly in 2014's Great White Matrix to describe sharks swimming peacefully in their natural habitat. The same show referred to sharks eating fish as a "vicious attack." 2013's Top Ten Sharkdown claimed to be counting down the 10 deadliest species of sharks, and yet half of these deadly sharks had never been associated with a single human fatality.
In 2013, Great White Serial Killer opened with the narration, "Two attacks at the same beach, two years apart. Has a shark turned into a serial killer?" There was absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the same shark was involved in both bites. I'm not thrilled to see a sequel to Great White Serial Killer on the schedule for Shark Week 2015.
Shark Week shows often get even small details wrong
Sometimes the small details that Shark Week gets wrong have important implications, like when the 2014 Monster Hammerhead documentary said that "hammerhead sharks have been spotted in record numbers in recent years." This implies that populations are increasing, when in reality populations are down so significantly that scalloped hammerheads just became the first species of shark listed on the endangered species list. It seems to me that an educational documentary about an endangered species should at least mention that said species is endangered instead of making up nonsense about increasing populations.
Sometimes the information that Shark Week documentaries get wrong is relatively minor, such as saying "there are 11 species of hammerhead shark" during the same Monster Hammerhead documentary (there are nine, counting the newly discovered Carolina hammerhead). These kinds of errors may be minor, but there are a lot of them. A lot.
So why do I bother?
With so many issues facing Shark Week, why do I bother fact-checking and calling for reform? As a conservationist and educator, I believe accuracy matters, especially when discussing public perceptions of threatened species conservation. I'll never reach an audience the size of the Discovery Channel, but I can teach more people the truth about sharks if I try than if I give up.
As for Shark Week 2015, I am cautiously optimistic that things are going to get better
Although Shark Week content itself isn't always great in terms of accuracy, it does provide ocean scientists and conservationists active on social media a great platform to amplify our message. By participating in social media conversations, experts can insert facts into them.
Things are looking up!
As for Shark Week 2015, I am cautiously optimistic that things are going to get better. The new president of Discovery has promised that we won't see any more megalodons but has yet to comment on the many other criticisms.
While I will continue to criticize things I find troublesome, I will also happily give praise where praise is due. Everything I have seen so far indicates that this year, while not solving all of these problems overnight, will be much better. The Discovery Channel appears to have made a genuine and significant effort to improve its content. In addition to no more megalodon fake documentaries, there is a lot more science-friendly content this year, including another installment of my favorite series, Alien Sharks, and a new special focusing on a joint US-Cuban shark research expedition.
So whether you're planning on watching Shark Week, want to learn about the oceans, or just want to watch a process Vox's Brad Plumer called "watching Shark Week drive a shark scientist slowly insane," follow me on Twitter. I'm always happy to answer questions that anyone has about sharks.