“The Discovery Channel’s ‘Shark Week’ is one of the most highly anticipated summer television events each year. Since its inception in 1988, it has grown in popularity to become one of the most widely viewed summer television events around the world. Although Shark Week initially focused on shark conservation and education, the last decade saw a shift to entertainment-focused programming rather than focusing on education. Over the years, Shark Week programming has begun to show more and more footage of violent shark attacks (or dramatized recreations of violent shark attacks). Many scientists and conservationists believe that this media hype around shark attacks (which, in reality, are incredibly rare) fuels the general public’s fear of sharks. Furthermore, this unjustified fear of sharks may be a major barrier preventing their effective conservation, despite the fact that global shark populations are declining and 25% of all shark species are either threatened, endangered, or critically endangered.
What We Know About Shark Week’s Impact on the Public’s View on Sharks
Many factors contribute to the beliefs that a person holds on any one subject, including personal experiences, age, education level, culture, politics, where their information was derived from, and so on. Furthermore, many of these factors interact with one another, creating a very complex collection of variables that result in a person’s beliefs. This makes studying what factors may influence a person’s attitudes towards shark conservation inherently difficult. However, these two studies are a valuable first step in identifying what factors may contribute the most to our views about sharks.
For instance, in both studies, demographic data like age, gender, and education level had little to no relation to knowledge or opinions on sharks. The Myrick and Evans study found that watching videos of violent shark attacks cause a person to over-estimate their risk of being a victim of a shark attack, compared to those who do not watch videos of violent shark attacks. This finding agrees with many studies that have found that people who watch crime dramas on television over-estimate their risk of being a victim of a crime. They also found that dramatized recreations of shark attacks had the same effect as real footage and that celebrity endorsed PSAs and non-celebrity endorsed PSAs did not counteract this effect. This study demonstrates that a short clip promoting the value of shark conservation is not sufficient to overpower our strong fear response to watching shark attack footage. This information highlights the potential for dramatized Shark Week footage to skew the public’s view of sharks in a negative manner.
O’Bryhim and Parsons, on the other hand, found that increased knowledge about sharks is correlated with increased action towards shark conservation. Most interestingly, respondents who previously viewed shark week were more likely (31.2%) to believe that shark conservation was urgent than non-shark week viewers (19.6%). Additionally, people who scored well on their shark knowledge were more likely to have watched Shark Week in recent years. These findings demonstrate the potential for quality educational programming about sharks to increase awareness and action for shark conservation.”
-By Derrick Alcott, Oceanbites
Myrick, JG and Evans, SD. 2014. Do PSAs take a bite out of shark week?:The effects of juxtaposing environmental messages with violent images of shark attacks. Science Communication, 36(5): 544-569.
O’Bryhim, JR and Parsons, ECM. 2015. Increased knowledge about sharks increases public concern about their conservation. Marine Policy, 56: 43-47.