Sharks, Lies, and Videotape: A content analysis of 32 years of Shark Week documentaries

Published on
18 August 2021

Sharks, Lies, and Videotape: A content analysis of 32 years of Shark Week documentaries

Lisa B. Whitenack, Brady L. Mickley, Julia Saltzman, Stephen M. Kajiura, Catherine C. Macdonald, David S. Shiffman


Despite evidence of their importance to marine ecosystems, at least 25% of all chondrichthyan species are estimated or assessed as threatened with extinction. In addition to the logistical difficulties of effectively conserving wide-ranging marine species, shark conservation is believed to have been hindered in the past by public perceptions of sharks as dangerous to humans. Shark Week is a high-profile, international programming event that has potentially enormous influence on public perceptions of sharks, shark research, shark researchers, and shark conservation. However, Shark Week has received regular criticism for poor factual accuracy, fearmongering, bias, and inaccurate representations of science and scientists. This research analyzes the content and titles of Shark Week episodes across its entire 32 years of programming to determine if there are trends in species covered, research techniques featured, expert identity, conservation messaging, type of programming, and portrayal of sharks. We analyzed titles from 272 episodes (100%) of Shark Week programming and the content of all available (201; 73.9%) episodes. Our data demonstrate that the majority of episodes are not focused on shark bites, although such shows are common and many Shark Week programs frame sharks around fear, risk, and adrenaline. While anecdotal descriptions of disproportionate attention to particular charismatic species (e.g. great whites, bull sharks, and tiger sharks) are accurate and supported by data, 79 shark species have been featured briefly at least once. Shark Week’s depictions of research and of scientists are biased towards a small set of (typically visual and expensive) research methodologies and (mostly white, mostly male) scientists, including presentation of many white male non-scientists as experts. While sharks are more often portrayed negatively than positively, limited conservation messaging does appear in 53% of episodes analyzed. Results suggest that as a whole, while Shark Week is likely contributing to the collective perception of sharks as monsters, even relatively small alterations to programming decisions could substantially improve the presentation of sharks and shark science and conservation issues.

bioRxiv, DOI: 10.1101/2021.08.18.456878


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