Can Shark Week Save Sharks?

By Emily McDonald

Every summer, there is a week-long shark infestation on cable TV. They aren’t here to attack, instead they need your protection.

Shark Week teaches us that pairing a social change message with a TV show or movie can increase support for the cause, a new study suggests.

Since 2010, the Discovery Channel has partnered with different conservation groups to incorporate Public Service Announcements (PSAs) and information about shark conservation and the low risk of shark attacks into its annual Shark Week.

Communications scholars Jessica Gall Myrick and Suzannah Evans decided to examine how effective these shark conservation PSAs were directly after violent clips of shark attacks sampled from Shark Week. The findings were published in the October 2014 issue of Science Communication.

Even though the violence of Shark Week programming is in contrast with the messages of the PSAs, this format still allows for pro-shark advocacy messages to be effective, according to the researchers.

Five hundred and thirty-one participants were randomly assigned to watch one of 15 different video clips, which included a roughly three-minute long Shark Week clip followed by either a PSA or a neutral commercial.

The researchers tested two PSAs, one with celebrity and one without. The first featured January Jones talking about the harm humans cause to sharks, while the other explained the need to protect sharks. Meanwhile, the clips from Shark Week varied in violence, some featuring blood and others with no explicit scenes of injury at all.

Participants then answered a series of questions about how they felt after viewing the Shark Week clip. The questions were designed to assess what emotions the clips produced, whether or not participants felt that sharks posed a danger to them personally, and whether they were inclined to support shark conservation and look for more information about sharks.  

For example, to measure perceived threat of shark attacks, researchers asked participants how much they agreed with the statements like, “I believe that shark attacks are severe” and “I am at risk for a shark attack if I swim in the ocean.” Participants were also asked to indicate their intentions to learn more about sharks using the hypothetical statement, “When the topic of sharks comes up, I am likely to tune it out.” Other questions included whether or not participants would then go on to support shark conservation and the amount of time and number of years they’ve spent watching Shark Week.

The researchers found that seeing the violent clips increased participants’ beliefs that sharks pose a danger to them.

“This suggests that televised shark-on-human violence, whether gory, cartoonish, or realistic, can possibly result in fear and/or overstated beliefs about personal risk,” the researchers write.

The researchers also found that PSAs did boost participants’ intentions to support shark conservation, but they were ineffective at reducing the fear produced in participants by the violent video clips.

“This finding indicates that while the Discovery Channel may be adding more scientific statements such as the actual low risk of shark attack to Shark Week programming, it still presents sharks as frightening and potentially violent animals in ways that resonate with audiences,” say the researchers.

Despite this, the fact that viewers of the PSAs were more likely to support shark conservation than viewers who did not receive this message is heartening for conservationists.

“From our results, it seems partnering with Shark Week, with its large viewership, may be a worthwhile investment for advocacy groups working to protect sharks from extinction,” the researchers note.

Science Communication

Jessica Gall Myrick, Indiana University, Bloomington
Suzannah D. Evans, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Posted: March 9, 2016