On Monday, the Washington Post published a report criticizing the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week program for featuring too many white men as shark experts and for continuing to spread “negative messages” about sharks.
The report highlighted research by the Public Library of Science led by Allegheny College biology professor Lisa Whitenack. The project found that “Discovery emphasized negative messages about sharks, lacked positive shark conservation messages, and featured mostly white men, including several experts of the same name.” .
Before getting into the study, the Washington Post ran a brief profile of Whitenack, noting that the biologist “loved sharks as a kid” and watched “Shark Week” every summer.
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However, the article says, “when scientists appeared on his television screen, he rarely saw women he could look up to.” Thinking about this in his life, he lamented that “I am not from a family of scientists, I have not seen many people like me on TV.”
As an adult, Whitenack decided to explore these “misconceptions” – as the Post describes them. The piece reads: “When pandemic lockdowns hit in 2020, he saw an opportunity to explore the source of his old misconceptions. Was Shark Week spreading false information about sharks to viewers — and who was it? “learns?”
This question motivated Whitenack’s research. According to the report, “Whitenak led a team of researchers to study hundreds of episodes of Shark Week that aired between 1988 and 2020.”
David Shiffman, a conservation expert at Arizona State University, who co-authored the study, noted that in addition to the study revealing a negative image of sharks, the program featured more white experts and commentators named Mike “than women.”
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Shiffman suggests that this may be due to discrimination by the Discovery Channel. He said, “If the hundreds of colored people working in this industry are interested, [and] It’s no coincidence that they only attract white men when my industry is over half female.”
The Post notes that Discovery has yet to comment on the findings, but they declined to comment on the findings of a “preliminary version” of the study in 2021, claiming that it “has yet to undergo any scientific validation.”
According to the study, “this trend has persisted for nearly the entire history of the televised event. Of the 229 experts who participated in the 201 episodes of Shark Week, more than 90 percent were White, and approximately 78 percent were male, the study found.”
The article quoted Shark Sciences co-founder and biologist Carly Bohannon, who praised the study for “putting numbers on what she and her colleagues have long-standing concerns about diversity in the media and shark science.”
Bohannon noted, “We all grew up seeing one type of person on TV. ‘Shark Week’ was really the biggest thing, and it was always full of white people.”