Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Beyond the Sensationalism: Shark Week Matters for Public Perception of Sharks

Great white sharks have returned to Cape Cod for the summer season. Photo via EPA.

David Shiffman wrote a blog this week entitled “Does Shark Week portrayal of sharks matter?” It’s no exaggeration to say that most Shark Week programming focuses on sensationalism – it is entertainment, after all – and tends to ignore or leave out some scientific information about sharks.

By looking at sharks, it’s easy to see why they’re so formidable – their appearance is undoubtedly scary. But this has escalated to a level of fear mongering that imposes upon sharks an identity that they don’t truly live up to.

Shark attacks are extremely rare. In fact, most sharks need protection and many are threatened or endangered:

“Many species of sharks are in desperate need of conservation. Twenty-four percent of all known species of sharks, skates and rays are considered Threatened with extinction by the IUCN Red List. Using a variety of different methods, scientists have documented rapid and severe population declines in many species of sharks all over the world.”

Shiffman notes that the biggest source of shark-related news in any given year is from Shark Week, and that much of this information shapes the public’s perception.

“Lots of people are afraid of sharks, which negatively influences support for shark conservation,” Shiffman says. However, “Exposure to pro-conservation messages on Shark Week documentaries can make people more supportive of shark conservation.”

Additionally, Shiffman notes that the conservation message is sometimes lost in translation. “The pro-conservation effect of a PSA does not work as well when a conservation message is interspersed with violent, fearmongering imagery.”

With such a captive audience, Discovery has a real opportunity to discuss the human threats that sharks face, such as overfishing for shark fin soup in Asia, among other concerns. Shark Week programming should focus more efforts on conservation and education, instead of relying solely on sensationalism.

Read Shiffman’s full blog post on the impact of Shark Week.


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