I’ve given up on watching TV years ago – the occasional documentary or football game (guilty) once in a blue moon will do for me. But recently, there are fewer and fewer quality documentaries being shown on TV; not to say that there aren’t any awesome ones being made – there’s excellent documentaries coming out every year, but TV channels like Discovery or History seem to have dropped the bar in the past few years. Now, Discovery Channels’ “Shark Week” is a great example of that low quality. But why are reputable scientists allowing themselves to feature in this pseudoscience mumbo-jumbo disaster? The answer is simple, and unethical: Shark Week producers have been lying to them, just like how they’ve been lying to their audience.
Jonathan Davis now works for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, but a while ago he was studying the bull sharks in the Gulf of Mexico for his Masters research. It was then that he was approached by a Shark Week film crew.
“They were interested in the sharks in Louisiana, and I was the person doing the research there,” Davis says.
Naturally, he accepted, wanting to share his research with the world. But he soon started suspecting something was a bit fishy. Producers offered him no information about what their project was:
“I asked a few of the crew members, including the producer, what the show was going to be about. I never got a straight answer and the producer seemed to avoid the question. I was just told it would be combined with some other filming to make one show about Louisiana shark research.”
He was shocked when he found out what his interview and research was being used for. In 2013, a Shark Week special called Voodoo Shark, which was about a mythical monster shark called “Rooken” that lived in the Bayous of Louisiana. His answers, from unrelated questions were edited in such a way that it seems that he believes in the monster, and is actually looking for it. That’s right, Shark Week lied and edited unrelated answers to manipulate and mislead the viewers. Davis explains how this trickery was carefully planned and done:
“Throughout the interview I was fed certain words to rephrase my sentences in ways that the producer thought would spark more interest. Some words or phrases they asked me to say were beyond anything I would say on my own and I refused. However, they were clever in their questioning by getting me to respond to a vague question with a response that could be used as an answer to a completely different question. The prime example that was used on the show was towards the very beginning of Voodoo Sharks. The voice-over introduced my researchers and I as we were riding in a boat out looking for sharks on the edge of the Lake. They said, “They believe that if there is a monster shark entering Lake Pontchartrain it is likely sticking to this area…” and then it pans to a clip from my interview where they asked me, “Do you think there are large Bull Sharks in these bayous and swamps around Lake Pontchartrain?” so my response was to THAT question. They used my response to one question to make it sound like I believed in this monster shark ‘Rooken’ that they had just laid the groundwork for being real as a preface for the whole show.”
This isn’t a singulary case – Shark Week did the same thing this year, in 2014. Kristine Stump, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Shedd Aquarium, will be featured in the 2014 Shark Week documentary Monster Hammerhead. Here’s the description for the documentary:
“Monster Hammerhead explores a legendary hammerhead shark that has been patrolling Florida’s shores for the past 60 years. Now, a team of scientists and anglers look to explore the mystery and find out if the legend could be real.”
So, let’s take it from the start – great hammerhead sharks have been documented to live 44 years at most. While it’s not impossible for them to live beyond that, for a “legendary shark” to “patrol Florida’s shores” for 60 years… that seems more than unlikely. But this is not even the worst thing – Stump was lied by the production crew, who told her the documentary was about something else.
“The basic premise was a camera crew was dropping in on real scientists doing actual hammerhead research,” Stump said. “We’d talk about the research goals and the challenges we face in trying to achieve those goals. Monster Hammerhead does not match the description of what we filmed.”
Now, scientists suggest taking these documentaries with a huge grain of salt – or don’t look at them altogether. But they believe there can still be some good coming from Shark Week.
“While we can’t control the editing, we can control what we say on-camera,” she said. “By being involved, I could have the opportunity to be a voice of real science amid an otherwise sensationalist line-up. If we want to make a difference in Shark Week, then be the difference.”
Or, if you don’t want to make a difference and risk being misquoted, simply avoid the show:
“Had I known they would combine it with those ridiculous fishermen to make a show about a mythical shark I would have had some serious second thoughts about participating,” Davis said.
Meanwhile, it seems clear that Shark Week is one of the worst sources of information regarding sharks. Shame on you, Discovery! Go sit in a corner and think about what you’ve done!