If you’re in the dwindling number of people who believe in the value of a college education, perhaps this will change your mind.
A team of researchers, led by Lisa Whitenack, a biology professor at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, watched 272 episodes of the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” broadcasts, spanning 32 years of shows.
In their “study,” released last week, the researchers found two great faults in the longest-running series on cable television: too many white guys study sharks and are mean to them.
In their study, Whitenack’s team argued, “shark conservation is believed to have been hindered in the past by public perceptions of sharks as dangerous to humans.” “Shark Week” has fed into that.
“Shark Week is the highest-profile coverage of marine biology or ocean conservation on U.S. television, and represents the greatest temporary increase over baseline in U.S. residents paying attention to any ocean science topic,” the study noted. The series is a “high-profile, international programming event that has potentially enormous influence on public perceptions of sharks, shark research, shark researchers, and shark conservation.”
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“However, Shark Week has received regular criticism for poor factual accuracy, fearmongering, bias, and inaccurate representations of science and scientists.”
In the show, “sharks are more often portrayed negatively than positively,” they wrote, as a result overall, “Shark Week is likely contributing to the collective public perception of sharks as bad.”
But what is really bad is who discusses the sharks. Far too often, it’s a white guy named “Mike.”
Criticism of the show “includes concerns that Shark Week only features white male scientists despite the existence of many scientists from a variety of diverse backgrounds,” the study pointed out.
Researchers noted that Discovery and National Geographic both have said that it is “impossible to include more diverse representations of shark scientists because available shark scientists are predominantly white men.”
They dispute this, saying a group called Minorities in Shark Science has more than 300 members.
Yet, ultimately, 90% of “Shark Week‘s” 229 experts were white, and of those, 78% were men.
Writing in Smithsonian Magazine, David Shiffman — a marine biologist at Arizona State, of all places — recalled that researchers “were staggered by our findings.”
And part of that disorienting data included this: “We could count on one hand the number of non-white scientists who we saw featured in shows about their own countries. It was far more common for Discovery to fly a white male halfway around the world than to feature a local scientist.”
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Shiffman added, “Moreover, while more than half of U.S. shark scientists are female, you wouldn’t know this from watching ‘Shark Week.’ Among people who we saw featured in more than one episode, there were more white male non-scientists named Mike than women of any profession or name.”
As for the study, it concluded, “In sum, the narrative around Shark Week programming is complex. Shark Week clearly resonates with a large viewership, however, viewers and scholars have also perceived a lack of diversity (both in featured experts and featured sharks), a focus on shark ‘attacks,’ negative and fear-mongering messaging, and factual inaccuracies.”
Yet they believed it is salvageable.
“Even relatively small alterations to programming decisions could substantially improve the presentation of sharks and shark science and conservation issues,” researchers argued.