Sharks are highly evolved predators with ancestors tracing back to the prehistoric era. Many people are intrigued by sharks, which is probably why they have grown to be such a media sensation — right up there with serial killers and mass murderers. With the media spotlight often comes misinformation. Not only will this blog show you some killer shark tattoos (pun intended), hopefully, you learn a few things as well about how sharks and the people who research them are portrayed in the media.
Little was known about sharks in the early 70’s. The general public didn’t seem to think much of them. It wasn’t until a certain theatrical debut that caused international panic and that sensationalism began to surround shark encounters.
It was in 1974 that Peter Benchley’s novel, Jaws, hit bookshelves. By 1975 Steven Spielberg turned it into a movie, terrifying audiences around the world and creating widespread panic around sharks. With the amount of media coverage, one would think getting bit by a shark was a common occurrence. In reality, you’re more likely to be killed by a cow than a shark and this is one of the reasons that Peter Benchley became one of the greatest advocates for shark conservation.
In 1988, Discovery Channel’s Shark Week hit airwaves. The idea came about after the release of Jaws when the channel noticed audience numbers spiking when shark-related programming was on. The first shark week opened with Caged in Fear, an episode that showed the testing of shark cages. From then on, Discovery Channel would show the world the advancements in technology and research.
While Discovery Channel does an excellent job of educating the public about the plight of sharks (overfishing, finning, etc.), the channel can also be extremely misleading because they’re aiming for entertainment value. The more sensational and out there they are, these documentary-like episodes turn into docufictions.
In 2014, NPR ran a story addressing how Discovery Communications (Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, etc.) airs documentaries to advance outlandish theories in efforts to get people to tune in. NPR spoke with Jonathan Davis, a shark biologist, who was interviewed for one of these docufantasies, an episode of Shark Week entitled, ‘Voodoo Shark.’ Davis tells NPR he spoke with Discovery for about three hours, largely discussing research. It wasn’t until the end of the interview that the network asked him about the so-called ‘voodoo shark,’ Rookin and Davis let them know just how ridiculous he thought the idea was, “Of course, that’s BS and I’ve never heard of it. And even if I had heard of it, it would be completely false.”
When ‘Voodoo Shark’ aired, Davis’s comment, about how ridiculous the theory was did not make the cut. Instead, the editors took other footage of him discussing research, clipped it together so it sounded like there may be some sort of scientific reason for the presence of this voodoo shark, “Sharks are pretty amazing creatures. All of them have been found in weird places. So I’m not a hundred percent certain that it would happen, but it could happen.”
‘Voodoo Shark’ is not the only episode in which researchers have come out and said they were tricked into participating in these mockumentaries. One can see how it’s fun and/or terrifying to imagine the prehistoric shark, Megalodon, still exists. Or a monster hammerhead roaming the waters surrounding Florida for the last 60-years (which, by the way, is beyond the shark’s average lifespan). However, cutting and pasting a person’s scientific expertise to fit your narrative for entertainment purposes to boost ratings in nothing short of deplorable.
Hopefully, this year’s Shark Week is ethically edited and science focused. Shark behavior is fascinating without all the ridiculous claims. And if the network is going to make up ridiculous theories, at the very least they should quote scientists accurately, not conveniently edit to fit the narrative. If it’s terror and sensationalism you crave, hold tight for Eli Roth’s, ‘Meg.’
Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror was written in 1997 by Steve Allen. Meg is a 60ft Megaladon cruising the coast of California, inducing terror and leaving blood in its wake.
The moral of this blog? Don’t believe everything you hear on Shark Week, enjoy movies, and respect sharks.