Shark Week 2021
11-18th July 2021
Shark Week is an absolute pop-culture icon, with an enormous production budget and tens of millions of viewers tuning in to watch every year. Whilst it might be popular, there has been hot debate amongst scientists, conservationists and concerned citizens for many years about the way that Shark Week presents sharks, and whether the shows are alarmist and scientifically inaccurate. Many people believe that Shark Week is 'infotainment'; more about making money than about celebrating sharks or raising awareness. So, is Shark Week an educational tool or is it just sensationalist sharksploitation?
With increasing public awareness about threats facing sharks and rising concern for endangered species, I felt some hope that this year's Shark Week could be an excellent opportunity for scientists to engage the general public about sharks. With the might of such an enormous network behind them and a massive audience primed to watch, I felt Shark Week could be an incredible resource for raising public awareness and garnering support for shark conservation projects.
Maybe Shark Week 2021 would be have more of a basis in science compared to Shark Week 2020 ...
However, I was sorely disappointed when I saw the schedule for the week-long event... I was shocked to see so much alarmist language used in the titles of the shows. Once again, the organisers of Shark Week have, in my opinion, used sensationalist language, designed to grab the audience with a promise of action and gore, rather than presenting their shows as informative, educational documentaries. This language can be very damaging to the public image of sharks, as it can encourage people to see these animals as a dangerous threat and inhibit public support for shark conservation initiatives (Myrick & Evans, 2014, O’Bryhima & Parsons, 2015).
"Mega Jaws... Monster... Rogue... Lair... Terror... Demon... Mutant... Raging... Rumble... 'I was prey'"
- Shark Week 2021 show titles
I was also discouraged by the mention of a "Sharknado" and " shark vortex", which hint towards certain shark-related horror movies. Whilst these films are quite entertaining (I am actually a secret B-movie fan), they are certainly wildly scientifically inaccurate. Amongst those of us who know a little about sharks, these movies can be enjoyed as ridiculous and funny, but to some, these films can genuinely promote a very real fear of sharks and seed confusion about the threat they pose to human beings (Myrick & Evans, 2014, O’Bryhima & Parsons, 2015).
"Watching the violent images often featured on Shark Week may lead audiences to become overly fearful of being victimized by sharks"
- Myrick & Evans, 2014
I also had doubts about the validity of the characters presenting some of the programs this year. I mean no disrespect to those involved, and I praise their interest in these wonderful animals, but I cannot see how Tiffany Haddish and the stars of Jackass can be considered reliable shark experts, qualified to speak about them in an educational setting. On SharkSpeak follower online commented that it seemed to him that Shark Week had "turned into Hollywood celebrity week". If the inclusion of these stars bolsters public interest, that could certainly be of value, but I felt it was a shame that so few genuine shark experts seemed to be involved in Shark Week 2021.
Then again, I was not surprised! In previous years, scientists and experts involved in Shark Week have stated they felt "duped" into being a part of "mockumentaries", rather than informative, science-based documentaries that they thought they were signing up for. The lack of leading experts appearing in 2021 suggests to me that the scientific community is now doubtful of the value of Shark Week and reluctant to be involved.
I do not enjoy contributing negative material to the internet (there is certainly more than enough of that out there already!) and I do not mean to be troll, but I would love for Shark Week to include some content of a little more value to science communication. The general public is primed and hungry for shark-related programming and Shark Week offers an incredible, one-of-a-kind opportunity... Shark Week could be an immensely powerful tool to educate the public about the threats facing sharks, their population declines and their conservation. I implore those involved in the production of Shark Week to reconsider how they portray sharks! It is time for scientists and the media to work together to generate public support for shark conservation initiatives, rather than exploiting these severely threatened animals for economic gain.
Evans S (2015). Shark Week and the rise of infotainment in science documentaries. Communication Research Projects, 32:3, 265-271.
Myrick JG & 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: 544.
O’Bryhima JR & Parsons ECM (2015). Increased knowledge about sharks increases public concern about their conservation. Marine Policy, 56, 43-47 Access online.