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How Shark Week screws scientists

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Discovery is alienating the very people who supply its content: scientists

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This post was originally published last year. With this year's Shark Week programming beginning tonight, we thought this would be a good reminder of some of Discovery's more unpleasant tendencies.

Discovery’s Shark Week reached an important milestone this week: it hit an all-time ratings high, which the network partially attributes to an increase in female viewership. But instead of receiving acclaim, Discovery is getting pummeled by the media. A sample of recent headlines include "Shark Week is once again making things up," "Shark Week isn’t just misguided, it’s downright dangerous," and "More Sharknado than Science." Of course, this isn’t the first time Shark Week has experienced backlash for its negative portrayal of sharks and its tendency to rely on fiction rather than fact, as last year’s Megalodon documentary was widely trashed for suggesting that extinct sharks still roam Earth's waters.

But this year feels different, perhaps because a number of shark scientists have begun to explain why they refuse to work with Discovery — and how Shark Week burned them in the past.

The Shark Week burn

Jonathan Davis’ story is a prime example. His research was featured on Shark Week last year as part of a show called Voodoo Shark, which explored the existence of the "Rooken" — a fictional shark monster that dwells in the Louisiana Bayous. But, as io9 reported on Monday, Davis didn’t know that the producers were going to use his work to perpetuate a myth. In fact, he says, it wasn’t until his two-and-a-half hour interview with producers ended that he was asked, as an afterthought, what he thought of the voodoo shark.

"They portrayed it as though I believe in the Voodoo shark and that my research focused on searching for it."

"The interviewer said, 'What do you think of this monster shark called the Rooken in South Louisiana,' and my answer was ‘That’s complete BS, there’s no such thing, I’ve never heard of it, but if I had I would know that it wasn’t true,’" Davis explains. Then, the producer asked Davis about the existence of large bull sharks. He said that there could absolutely be large sharks in the area, even right behind them. It wasn’t until months later that he found out what had become of this answer.

"They chopped up the second question, and superimposed my second answer to the first question," he says. "They showed a Southern hillbilly fisherman talking about the voodoo shark, and then they pan to me, saying, ‘Shark scientist Jonathan Davis believes that if the voodoo shark is here, it will be in the lake bayous.’"

Outraged, Davis tried to get in touch with Discovery, but they never answered his emails. "They portrayed it as though I believed in the Voodoo shark and that my research focused on searching for it — the overall outlook of the show was terrible."

The Verge contacted Discovery to verify Davis’ story, but the network declined to address his assertions directly, stating instead:

For 27 years Shark Week has been the prime showcase for all things shark – science, legend and conservation concerns. A whole generation that has grown up with shark week have awareness and issues for sharks; many marine biologists cite Shark Week as bringing them into that field. Discovery Channel has been one of the biggest contributors to furthering shark research and have paid for technology that has been critical in the studies.

The production company that worked with Davis also got back to us, but they were equally vague:

It’s our goal at Gurney Productions to work closely with marine experts and scientists worldwide. We strive to create awareness for the entire shark species. The more viewers we can bring to TV through Shark Week the more potential donations that will come to the table to help study and preserve these awesome creatures and fight the real problem — commercial shark fishing and finning.

One might have expected to see less myth and more reality in this year’s shows. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case, because as one zoologist explained in a blog post for Southern Fried Science, the documentary that explored the existence of the "Shark Submarine" on Sunday night is actually the product of a fictional story created by journalists in the 1970s. These journalists, Michelle Wcisel explains, wanted to demonstrate how easy it was to fool readers, so they made up a story about a large white shark in South Africa’s False Bay. Seeing the myth propagated onscreen in 2014, she writes, "literally broke my heart to watch." And so shark experts are speaking out.

"A number of years ago, I was in a project in which the focus was on the USS Indianapolis, the US cruiser that went down at the end of WWII," says George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History who has participated in Shark Week numerous times. Survivors of the wreckage were involved with sharks afterwards, he explains, so Discovery brought him in to speak to some of them. "It was a hugely moving testimony from these guys and the film crew from the UK did a marvelous job from making a docu-drama out of it," he says. But when Discovery saw the finished product, they changed the name of the special to "Ocean of Fear" (Burgess doesn’t recall the original title, which he says was far less provocative), and asked for changes.

"They made the film crew go back and insert more scared-to-death guys in the water."

"They made the film crew go back and insert more scared-to-death guys in the water, and injected it throughout the film to make it more scary," he says. But even after that show aired, Burgess continued to believe that Discovery could turn things around — until the Megalodon special aired last year.

"[Megalodon] was probably the final nail in the coffin as far as I was concerned," he says. "I defended their programming, but it’s hard for me to do that now after such an overtly bad show that was put out for titillating purposes only, and clearly had no factual basis."

This year, Kristine Stump, a research associate at Shedd Aquarium, counts herself among those who have spoken out against Discovery’s practices. "The basic premise was a camera crew was dropping in on real scientists doing actual hammerhead research," Stump told io9 about a special that aired Tuesday night. Instead, her work was featured on a special called Monster Hammerhead — one that Discovery says documents how "a team of scientists and anglers look to explore the mystery and find out if the legend could be real." Predictably, Stump said that the description "does not match the description of what we filmed."

Despite the mounting criticism, Discovery still has supporters among members of the shark community. Eli Martinez, publisher and editor of Shark Diver Magazine, has worked with Discovery on multiple occasions, including this year. "What I specialize in is interacting and working with sharks," he says. "They didn’t ask me to do anything that I didn’t want to do."

"They didn’t ask me to do anything that I didn’t want to do."

In fact, he says, the only pressure he feels comes from the shark community itself. "They are calling me a sellout," he says, for participating in a special this year called Zombie Sharks (the name Discovery chose to represent tonic immobility — a phenomenon in which some sharks fall into a trance-like state when their noses are rubbed or when they're held belly-up). "People don’t know what the show is about and just from the name alone, I’ve gotten some heat."

Moreover, he says, throwing Discovery under the bus for something that most nature and science channels do every day isn’t entirely fair. "I remember sitting in a meeting at National Geographic and we started talking about bringing in the science and conservation people [for a show]." But the minute Martinez’s team brought science up, they were told that National Geographic wanted to downplay that part as much as they could. "They said, if I want to do this show, we need less science, and more of the excitement, fear, and fun of the animal."

What does this mean for Shark Week?

As ratings continue to soar, it’s unlikely that Discovery will change its strategy. And given the current expert exodus away from Discovery’s programming, Shark Week might soon be a place that only gives voice to charlatans. "If they don’t start adjusting their programming at a real-world level they will have less and less experts and substituting with more pseudo-experts," Burgess says. "It’s kind of sad because the audience is already guaranteed and they are choosing this route."

Todd Cameron, an activist who recently swam 1,429 miles to raise awareness about the dire ecological situation sharks are facing, is one of the casualties of Discovery’s poor business practices. He, too, was approached by Discovery to participate in one of its shows, but turned the opportunity down. He took to Facebook in July to explain his decision:

Todd Cameron Facebook - shark week

Cameron told The Verge that Shark Week is "very juvenile," adding that "sharks are such a crucial species and 100 million are killed each year, you would think that Shark Week would be doing something educational." He also takes issue with the way sharks are shown approaching researchers’ boats. "You need to bait blue sharks for three hours just to see one," he says. "If you don’t do that they have no reason to come up to the boat — that’s the reality of shark diving." But Discovery rarely tells viewers this, he says, and they often omit vital pieces of information, like the fact that many species depicted in the shows never come near humans. "They are taking an extremely skittish, docile, and shy animal like a tiger shark or a hammerhead shark and they are tuning it into a monster."

Researchers "don’t want to be part of the hate."

Samantha Sherman, a marine biologist at James Cook University, says that Shark Week was "the best week of the year" growing up, but it has taken a distinct turn toward pseudoscience. As a result, she says, her colleagues have been less than forthcoming when producers have called them and asked for help. "I have a couple friends that have been approached by Discovery and have turned it down because of where it’s going and the fear-mongering," she says. "They don’t want to be part of the hate, or have their message misinterpreted so they have just said ‘no.'"

"There is a distinct lack of well-published and highly-regarded shark scientists involved in the programming," said Christine Dudgeon, a leopard shark ecologist at the University of Queensland in Australia, in an email to The Verge. Instead of focusing on the science, she says, they show shark attacks — which, for the record, are still rare, despite a recent increase (between 2006 and 2010, an average of 4.2 fatal shark attacks occurred each year).

This begs the question: could Discovery maintain its current success without relying on sensationalism? According to Sherman, there’s more than enough exciting shark science to fuel such an endeavor. "There are so many other sharks out there — sharks that can do things that most people wouldn't believe, like glow blue." With over 400 species of sharks in existence, she says, it’s unfortunate that Shark Week often only profiles three or four.

But content is only one side of the coin: viewers have to tune in, too. A change in Discovery's strategy would probably be welcomed by experts, but would likely mean a drop in ratings over time. "The TV world isn't putting anything out there that the audience isn’t asking for," Martinez says. "I mean look at Sharknado! It’s horrible, but the audience loved it enough to make a second one."