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Film Fakery: Does Shark Week Harm Conservation Efforts?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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great white sharkGreat White Serial Killer. World’s Deadliest Sharks. I Escaped Jaws. Sharkpocalypse. These are just a few of the programs airing this week during the Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week and NatGeo Wild’s new copycat, Sharkfest. Undoubtedly these programs will attract their usual massive ratings, but they may be guilty of the same kinds of film fakery that plagues many wildlife films, where the images on your screen don’t tell a full or even truthful story. In the process, experts warn the films may actually send the wrong conservation message and harm endangered species.

“The term ‘fakery’ has many nuances to it,” says Chris Palmer, founder of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University in Washington, D.C. Palmer shined a light on some of the worst aspects of wildlife filmmaking in his 2010 book and 2013 documentary Shooting in the Wild. “Shark Week,” he says, typifies one of the most common aspects of film fakery, where producers create a mistaken impression in the audience’s minds about what goes on in the wild. “With Shark Week, people get to see sharks as being dangerous and man-eating because that’s what gets ratings. The networks are looking for that male demographic, age 21 to 35, so they push sensational shots of sharks chomping down on people.”

Palmer, who has won two Emmy Awards for his own wildlife films, believes that pushing this misinformation—that sharks are nothing but dangerous killing machines—can hurt conservation efforts. “The wrong perception can lead to misperceptions and in the end, I think, hurt public policy toward these animals,” he observes. “One has to wonder how that affects work that goes on at CITES [the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species] and places like that where we try to get international protection for sharks. If the populace is thinking of sharks as dangerous, why would anyone save them? That makes it harder, I think, to do the right thing.”

Real or fake?

Demonizing animals is just one of the many kinds of fakery tainting the wildlife filmmaking industry. Another kind of deception involves manipulating events to get the “right” shots on film. That might include leaving food out for animals, dosing a carcass with candy, drugging animals so they don’t move or pushing them toward the camera. “The worst case is when you put predator and prey together to get photographs,” Palmer says. Although this technique has been employed extensively in the past, he calls it immoral: “You get these dramatic shots, but people don’t see animals as they really are.”

shooting in the wild chris palmerIn other cases, what appears to be on camera isn’t completely true even if it may seem to be that way on the surface. Some films claim to follow the story of specific animals, although the footage is of multiple individuals edited together to tell a “real” story. In other films, discordant shots are edited together to depict something that could not be filmed in the wild. Sir David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet series infamously mixed footage of polar bears in the wild with sequences shot in a zoo. This created a scandal two years ago when viewers found out, and the Discovery Channel added a disclaimer when it brought the series to the U.S.

A more subtle kind of fakery can occur in the editing stages. Filmmakers might be in the field for months at a time, getting limited shots of their subjects every few weeks. But all too often those short shots can be edited together to make it seem as if they occurred in a very short sequence. “The final film looks like there are a lot of these rare animals,” Palmer says. “People watching it are saying to themselves, ‘Well, golly, what’s the problem? I was just watching this film, and I see hundreds of these chimps or these white-tipped oceanic sharks or whatever,’ and then they don’t realize that the film has been put together with very little footage because it’s hard to find these animals.”

The risk to wildlife

In addition to fakery, Palmer points out that the animals themselves are often endangered by filmmakers. “We get too close, we harass them, we’re desperate to get the money shots,” he says. “And we go in so close and bother them that some of the animals even get killed.” Ethical codes for filmmakers should prevent this from happening, but they lack enforcement. “They set a marker, but if someone breaks them there is no one in the field to say, ‘Don’t do that,’” Palmer says.

Many filmmakers may find themselves placed under extreme corporate pressure to get dramatic footage of rare and endangered species. Because most crews contain just one or two people and no one is in the field watching, circumstances can lead to cutting corners. “No one’s looking at you,” Palmer says. “It’s very easy to do things that no one would know about.” He notes that there aren’t any real metrics about this, because people don’t admit it, but it happens: “The only time you hear the truth is at 2 A.M. after a few beers.”

The public’s role

The public can have a role in reducing film fakery, whether it’s during Shark Week or on another wildlife program. “I would encourage people to be a little skeptical and ask questions,” he says. “How did they get that shot? Is the animal being controlled? Did that animal come from a game farm where it was held under inhumane conditions? Especially for endangered species, how was it treated? Did the filmmakers keep their distance so the animal was undisturbed or was the animal harassed and chased down to get good footage?” Asking television networks these questions, he suggests, can lead to change: “All of these networks are sensitive. I think if the public speaks up, they will do a better job.”

Although he expresses a lot of criticism for fakery, Palmer does think that wildlife filmmaking can have a very positive effect, even in cases where the narrative plays loose with a few facts to pull at heartstrings. “People who love the film may vote in a positive way for senators and congressmen who will vote in a more sustainable manner,” he asserts. “That may be an example where fakery is, if you like, pro-conservation.”

Photo: Great white shark by Mike Davison via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. DavidEPowell 10:54 pm 08/5/2013

    I have watched the “Shark Week” stuff for quite a few years, and have found many of their shows informative, especially “back in the day.” I am sure they get a lot of people interested in Shark research and preservation.

    That said I was somewhat disturbed by their “Megalodon” show which could have been a place for a lot of serious talk about the species and which instead was heavily fictionalized. It struck me as similar to the “Mermaids” show which crossed a similar line, in that some people may see the false parts and believe them to be real.

    I have no problem with dramatizing stuff like shark attack situations that really happened as a way of education, but fictionalizing evidence that Megalodons or Mermaids exist is too close to “Photographing Fairies” territory for me. Discovery has a strong name and reputation, and I am worried that they may be risking it. There is plenty of cool stuff to talk about regarding Charcharadon Megalodon without resorting to such disappointing fakery.

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  2. 2. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 11:09 pm 08/5/2013

    Hi David — Yeah, the Megalodon thing takes film fakery to a whole new level!

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  3. 3. Johnny O 1:48 am 08/8/2013

    The highest ratings were for a show that was nothing but conjecture, no science whatsoever.

    The cable-viewing audience obviously enjoys hearing about the threat of a shark rather than actually learning about the actual animal. What better engaging threat than one which is oh-so-larger-than-life and whose (fossilized) remains can be shown to the viewer to document the actual existence of the creature – regardless of the fact that such a threat is extinct?

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  4. 4. bucketofsquid 11:59 am 08/9/2013

    I think the NSA should be tracking the people that watch shows that show animal attacks simply because those people are crazy and like to see others be harmed. It is very different than shows that show fictionalized violence where you know it isn’t real.

    I remember watching a show about snow leopards where the bulk of the show was about the researchers spending several years trying to film them and having no luck until they finally found a breeding pair and were able to capture them on film. That really helped make the point that snow leopards are rare.

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  5. 5. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 2:56 pm 08/9/2013

    I think I saw that same snow leopard program! Really fantastic — it showed how difficult it can be to make these films and to do science on these rare species. Anyone remember what the show might have been? I’m blanking on the name.

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  6. 6. Heteromeles 6:53 pm 08/9/2013

    I’m with David Powell. I was upset because I only caught the last 15 minutes or so of that Megalodon mess, and didn’t realize the whole stupid thing was a focumentary (fake documentary, ahem), until the last scene gave the show away. I assumed it was the usual pathetic cryptid hunt, with the five seconds of interesting footage saved for the end. What I got felt like a stupid bait and switch, which is why I’m boycotting shark week here on out.

    Thing is, I think we’re back in the 1970s, with Benchley’s Jaws scaring everyone. It feels like, in 40 years, we’ve gone full circle, from sharks as mindless eating machines to sharks as amoral eating machines, all run through great whites (poor things) with just a few dribs and drabs of other sharks thrown in to give the appearance that it’s science. There are a few hundred-odd (very odd) sharks out there, and it sucks that, if we’re lucky, we get about 10 minutes of a handful of them, plus twenty hours of great whites and eight hours of bull sharks. Probably I’m dreaming, but I seem to remember a time when documentarians actually gave a rat’s ass about whether they survived this century or not. They sure don’t seem to now.

    Personally, I’m hoping they end shark week, but with the ratings from that megalodon mess, it’s going to be even more of the same next year.

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  7. 7. u14087627 4:48 pm 05/1/2014

    The problem with this sensationalism of sharks is not only the conservation efforts being destroyed which in turn causes a major imbalance of our Eco-system but also the now stereotypical view people have on sharks. Living in a coastal town where shark diving is a pastime of mine, I often see tourists coming in expecting hundreds of sharks (in agreement with the fact that due to sensationalism people believe they are not under threat and are in larger numbers). But furthermore, to keep up with the demands of the public I have seen so many dive charters turning to baited dives (where the water is chummed with fish oil, blood and carcasses) which has resulted in the sharks behaviour completely changing! Contrary to the calm and serene creatures I see them to be, people want to see the aggressive “man eating” side of them and I believe that this baiting of dives can in no way be beneficial to the sharks’ natural lifestyles.

    Additionally, fishing charters are also taking advantage of the view portrayed by many of these fictitious programmes by selling the idea that catching a shark makes you a hero of some sorts and so, many people actually pay to catch a shark, kill it and keep the jaws as a trophy. To me this is sick and completely unintelligent of humans to do!

    I feel that coastal attractions are exploiting this fictitious view given by programmes such as those on shark week. But maybe they should take a step back and think about how long they will be able to do this before there are no more sharks left.

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