Fear factor: How sensationalised shark documentaries undermine conservation efforts

Experts explain why misleading documentaries about sharks can be problematic.

A scuba diver surrounded by sharks in the Bahamas. Sensationalised documentaries often make this type of interaction with sharks seem dangerous, but in reality, it is almost always safe. (Credit: Gerald Schömbs via Unsplash)

When Brendon Sing first encountered sharks he was as a young boy behind the safety of aquarium glass in his native South Africa. Like many children of his generation, Brendon’s limited knowledge about sharks came from the 1975 smash-hit movie “Jaws,” which meant he was both fascinated and extremely fearful of these oceanic predators. 

When he was 16, Brendon learned to scuba dive and got his first opportunity to get into the water with sharks. “When you [first] go into the ocean you expect to hear that music, that dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun, and expect a shark to maybe circle around you or try and take a snap,” he told Marine Madness. However, to his surprise, the first shark Brendon saw was just as scared of him as he was of it and immediately took off in the opposite direction. 

This experience made Brendon realise that everything he had been told about sharks or seen on TV was wrong, and it inspired him to dedicate his life to studying and protecting these misunderstood creatures. Fast forward to today and Brendon is the founder and co-director of the conservation charity Shark Guardian, and he is on a mission to prove the media wrong about sharks.  

Related: Friends or foes? The media’s portrayal of sharks & the influence on human perspectives

Jaws may not be as relevant or widely viewed today as it was in the past, but Brendon thinks the film’s legacy, as well as more modern versions like “The Meg” or “Sharknado,” are inspiring a new wave of extremely negative TV documentaries about sharks. 

It is important to note that not all shark documentaries are negative. There are plenty that focus on the ecological importance and diversity of sharks or highlight conservation issues they are facing. However, the popularity of shark documentaries has skyrocketed in recent decades with special campaigns like Shark Week (mainly celebrated in the US). This has led to TV networks pumping out poorly researched and overly sensationalised documentaries to fill the demand.  

“I would say that people are drawn to these programmes, first of all, because they are interested in sharks,” Brendon said. “But from my personal experience, what I’ve found is that these documentaries are not really based on scientific data.” Instead, these documentaries lean into the “fear factor” surrounding sharks in order to maximise their entertainment value, he added. 

Documentaries like this often focus on sharks’ impressive predatory skills by showing footage of them hunting or even retelling stories from shark attack victims. They also rely on tense music, quick cuts and jump scares to paint the predators as the bad guys. The narrators also throw in lots of trigger words like “bloodthirsty,” “terrifying,” “violent” and “killers,” or phrases like “shark-infested waters” for good measure.

A replica of a megalodon jaw at Bristol Aquarium. Sensationalised documentaries like to focus on things like teeth to highlight sharks’ predatory capabilities. (Credit: Harry Baker)

This is a problem that has also been noted by the scientific community. In 2021, a study published in the journal bioRxiv analysed more than 200 Shark Week documentaries to look at how scientifically accurate they were. The team of researchers found that…

  • The shows frequently included scientifically inaccurate or misleading statements.
  • They often attempted to needlessly induce fear.
  • They mainly relied on non-scientific hosts.
  • They often had unnecessarily superlative titles.
  • “Scientists” involved in the shows often had questionable credentials.
  • And the shows rarely mentioned important conservation issues, but frequently focused on shark attacks.

All of this does not mean that there is no risk associated with getting up-close and personal with sharks. “Some species of sharks are dangerous, same as any predatory animal, and people should treat them with the respect that this demands,” Dr Phil Doherty, a shark researcher at the University of Exeter, told Marine Madness. “But this doesn’t necessarily make them scary.” 

In reality, sharks are ecologically vital, incredibly diverse and face a much greater threat from humans than we face from them. “Overfishing is the main threat to sharks,” Dr Doherty wrote in an email. In the last 50 years, an 18-fold increase in shark fishing (either on purpose or by accident) has led to an average population decline of 71% across shark species, he added. This makes conservation efforts to protect sharks vitally important.

However, even without these documentaries, it can often be an uphill battle to get people to care about sharks. “It’s difficult because sharks are not cuddly and cute and we can’t see and hold them,” Brendon said. The only way people can see sharks for themselves and truly understand them is to get into the ocean, which can be daunting and unaffordable for a lot of people, he added.

An aerial shot of a lemon shark taken during a research survey in the Bahamas in 2018. Monitoring shark numbers is an important part of conservation work to protect them. (Credit: Harry Baker)

This makes documentaries the only source of information some people have when it comes to sharks, which can be problematic. “Ultimately, if the documentaries are still portraying sharks as these animals that you have to be extremely careful about, then it really does make it very difficult to try and convince people that we should protect them,” Brendon said.

However, despite people’s prejudices against sharks, it is still possible to change their minds. Brendon, and the rest of the Shark Guardian team, spend a lot of their time educating people, especially school children, about sharks. And it makes a big difference. “We [Shark Guardian] find that we are able to inspire people to really get involved to protect sharks once they learn how important they are and what we need to do to protect them,” Brendon said.

That is why shark experts like Brendon and Dr Doherty want these documentaries to focus less on the “fear factor” surrounding sharks and more on science and conservation. 

“I always think of it as a massive missed opportunity to educate the younger generations and other people about sharks,” Brendon said. These shows reach millions of people every year and if they included scientific information and highlighted conservation issues they could help make a real difference, he added.