As It Happens

Shark Week has too many white men and is prone to 'fear mongering': study

If you tune in to Discovery Channel’s Shark Week coverage, you might get the false impression that all sharks are dangerous and all shark experts are white men.

Discovery Channel's annual series also plays up fears of the sea creatures, many of which are endangered

A close up of a shark's face against a background of bright blue water.
A shark is seen in an aquarium during the International Animal Fair in Istanbul on April 2, 2005. (Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images)

If you tune in to Discovery Channel's Shark Week coverage, you might get the false impression that all sharks are dangerous and all shark experts are white men. 

A new study looked at more than three decades of Shark Week content and found that the vast majority of experts shown were white men. What's more, the tone of the coverage has tended to focus on the most dangerous shark species, often playing up people's fears of the endangered ocean predators. 

"The message that they're sending, whether it's intentional or not — and it probably isn't — is that we're going to keep featuring the same people, they make for good television, and we're not as worried about presenting good science or really accurately representing the folks that are doing this work," co-author Lisa Whitenack told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. 

"It's not doing the sharks any favours, especially because so many sharks are, you know, considered endangered or threatened with extinction."

Whitenack, a shark paleobiologist at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, co-authored the study, which was published last month in the journal PLoS One

Discovery Channel has not responded to CBC's request for comment. 

A disproportionate number of white Mikes 

Like many shark scientists, Whitenack grew up watching and loving Shark Week. But when she thinks back, she can't remember seeing many people who look like her or her colleagues.

"Unfortunately, my memory was correct. It is a lot of men and a lot of white folks," Whitenack said. 

The study looked at more than 200 episodes of Shark Week that aired between 1988 and 2020. Of the more than 200 people billed by Discovery as experts or hosts, 93.9 per cent were white, and 78.6 per cent per cent were men. None used non-binary pronouns or identified as transgender.

Co-author David Shiffman, a conservationist at Arizona State University, noticed that Shark Week has featured more white men named Mike specifically, than it has women — period. 

A woman with blue glasses and bright red lipstick smiles as she peers through a pair of shark jaw fossils lined with pointy teeth.
Lisa Whitenack is a biology professor at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania who studies the paleobiology of sharks. (Allegheny College)

The study's authors say this isn't reflective of the diversity in their field. 

According to another study co-authored by Shiffman, more than half of the members of the American Elasmobranch Society — an academic group that supports the study of sharks and other fish — are women, and one in four members are Black. 

Whitenack notes that Minorities in Shark Sciences (MISS), a group of marine researchers that formed last year to boost representation in the field, has more than 300 members.

The organization's founder, marine biologist Carlee Bohannon, praised the study for putting a spotlight on diversity in the field.

"Diversity in people brings diversity in thought, which ultimately brings innovation," she told the Washington Post. "Being able to see someone who looks like you in this field really has an impact."

MISS teamed up with National Geographic in 2020 to diversify the experts featured on its SharkFest programming, a direct competitor to Shark Week. 

'Fear-mongering language'

Shark Week also lacks diversity in the types of sharks it covers, and how it talks about them, the researchers say.

The study found "fear-mongering language or negative portrayal of sharks" in 73.6 per cent of all episodes, often centring on shark attacks and shark bites. In reality, shark attacks are statistically rare, and almost never unprovoked.

On the other hand, the study also found positive language — like "awe-inspiring, beautiful, misunderstood, or ecologically important" — in 63.2 per cent of episodes.

A woman swims with nurse sharks at Compass Cay in the Exumas. Despite the media coverage, many species of shark are neither big nor dangerous, scientists say. (Khaichuin Sim/Getty Images)

Whitenack says that kind of "contradictory messaging" isn't helpful. 

"When you have a lot of negative messaging about sharks [and then] throw on a positive at the end, the positive part isn't the part that sticks. It's all of the negative stuff."

'There's only one kind of shark'

The most common species featured are great whites. The apex predator — made infamous in 1975's Jaws — appeared in 18.4 per cent of all episodes studied.

This was not surprising to marine scientist Toby Daly-Engel, director of the Florida Tech Shark Conservation Lab. 

"That's kind of the big joke with us around Discovery Channel is if you're looking at Shark Week, it looks like there's only one kind of shark, and that's a great white," she said.

Discovery Channel tends to focus the most on the great white shark, an animal made infamous by the movie Jaws. (Getty Images)

Daly-Engel was not involved with the Shark Week study, though she knows the authors personally and has collaborated with them on other research.

"You see the same individuals, the same species over and over because of the fascination, because of that intangible fear that we all get when we think about swimming in an ocean full of sharks, that, for better or worse, is a way of getting people hooked," she said.

"That's where I think the power of Shark Week comes from; there is a mystique associated with these animals."

She challenged Discovery Channel to harness mystique to "spread a positive message" about sharks, which are rapidly disappearing from the oceans. 

Oceanic shark and ray populations dropped more than 70 per cent between 1970 and 2018, according to a 2021 studyMore than one-third of the world's shark and ray species are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

"As scared as you are [of sharks], if they were gone, a worse thing would happen, which is that the entire health of the ocean ecosystem would also go downhill," Daly-Engel said.

"If you value the health of the ocean, then you should value sharks."

Positive experiences working with Shark Week

Both she and Whitenack have appeared on Shark Week programming, and say they had hugely positive experiences working with Discovery Channel. Daly-Engel says she'd do it again "in a heartbeat."

She says the programming is starting to catch up in terms of diversity, but still has a lot of work to do.

"Shark Week can be a really great way for scientists to get the word out about what they're doing, and why it's important. But in terms of reflecting the reality of the profession, it doesn't really at all," she said.

"Hopefully this kind of attention will show just how invested people are in seeing all sorts of faces on Shark Week."

Interview with Lisa Whitenack produced by Kate Swoger.

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