Letter to the Discovery Network

To the Discovery Network:

Members of our Internet shark discussion forum, SHARK-L, have been asked by your marketing representatives to help promote your famous Shark Week sequence. This letter, signed by list members and friends, is our formal response to the request from your grass roots agency, New Media Strategies, for our support of the programming.

How can we support Discovery Channel when we are fighting for shark conservation, and its biggest obstacle is the monster image given to sharks by the media, including Shark Week programs? Further, some of us who have been directly involved in the production of your documentaries feel disgusted at the way that our interviews were censored and our words twisted around.

Our group is comprised of scientists, researchers, educators, media companies, and many NGO's, lobbyists and others. In aggregate we represent a strong network of influence that can help or hurt the efforts of any Shark related programming or initiatives. In an age where media fragmentation is plaguing marketers and entertainment companies, we represent an outlet of opportunity for you.

We try to remain current regarding scientific findings on sharks, and we watch as many of Shark Week's documentaries as possible. However, as the years passed, we have become appalled by the failure of these documentaries to reflect modern scientific knowledge of sharks. We understand the need to drive "tune-in" and ratings to satisfy your obligations to your advertisers. However, it is our impression that the Discovery Channel's Shark Week is stooping to the level of tabloid journalism by casting sharks as the sea monsters that science was never able to find.

It's no secret that people love monsters, blood, teeth and frights. On Shark Week, that seems to be what you are offering them, even though this subject matter fails to reflect current scientific understanding of these unusual and important fish. For example, though there are about 500 known shark species, inhabiting a wide range of ecolological niches, your shows focus on the biggest top predators, especially the great white shark.

In recent years, conservation groups as well as individuals and scientists have become concerned to the point of alarm at the speed with which sharks have been depleted, mostly for the growing market for shark fin soup. It is estimated that roughly seventy-three million sharks a year are slaughtered, (though some estimates are as high as two hundred million), a plunder that has stripped the oceans of roughly ninety percent of the accessible species. Casting sharks in a negative light leads to increased devastation of the species that you feature, even if that is not your intention.

Apart from the waste and brutality involved in shark finning, the threat of extinction is such an important part of the reality sharks face, that we ask why you have not used your power to publicize it. It is your responsibility as a credible media company to portray the perilous situation sharks face, thus bolstering consumer awareness and action.

On the contrary, we know from personal experience that you take the trouble to clip information about the finning crisis from your sequences about sharks, deliberately concealing the facts of this oceanic catastrophe from your viewers, who innocently believe that you are presenting them with science.

Thus not only are sharks misrepresented as monsters when they are not, but the truth of the ecological crisis that has befallen them is left out. In using shark attack mania for profit, you are reinforcing the main obstacle to shark conservation. In projecting an air of scientific knowledge when you are presenting only tabloid journalism, you are wronging the animals you portray.

Your own words clearly express how you promote and prolong their "Mindless Man-eater" image, and contribute to an attitude that allows their mass slaughter with almost no public sympathy, nor protest:

"Ocean of Fear: Worst Shark Attack Ever"
"Deadly Stripes: Tiger Sharks"
"Top 5 Eaten Alive"
"Shark Feeding Frenzy"

We take issue with Ocean Conservancy as well, for allowing themselves to be associated with such a travesty.

In the 1970s, Peter Benchley’s fictional best-seller, JAWS (which Steven Spielberg made into a blockbuster movie), dramatically increased our immemorial fear of sharks. By the 1980s, that fear had largely given way to curiosity, resulting in an unprecedented amount research on them. Thus, in the 1990s, as sharks became target species for Asian markets, scientific data were available to combat the new threat to sharks.

We are no longer in the 1970s, and the archaic perception of sharks you present belongs on the History Channel, not the Discovery Channel. Peter Benchley became a spokesman for sharks and an ardent shark conservationist. We suggest Discovery Channel follow his example and move Shark Week into the 21st Century.

We welcome and encourage an open dialogue with Discovery Networks in regard to the programming for next year's Shark Week. Let's work together to balance your ability to drive "tune-in," with your responsibility to create awareness of the global marine disaster created by the intense overfishing of sharks.

We can fully support your efforts, resulting in many niche media publications and websites, reaching millions of consumers, to influence people to tune in and watch. Some list members are involved in the media and marketing communities and are willing to work together with you to ensure the alignment of the goals of Discovery Networks, and the sustainability of these important apex predators.

We look forward to your response.

Very truly yours


Glenn said…
I support the principles in this letter
Glenn Ashton
Ekogaia Foundation
Cape Town
South Africa
Wolf Leander said…
This is absolutely marvelous, Ila! I truly believe your letter will have the effect you and your supporters are trying to achieve.

Wolfgang Leander
Cochabamba / Bolivia
Franck said…
This is well thought, well written, and right on.

Anyone in disagreement, please pace yourself and read again.

...at the end conscience will raise and win.

Dr. Franck PORCHER
Smart Technologies
French Polynesia
PMarck said…
This letter is terrific! Hopefully the executives at Discovery Channel will balance their coverage and fulfill their obligation to help save shark species from certain extinction.

We must save these animals for future generations.

Peter Marck
Underwater Education & Training Center, Inc.
Dearest Ila

Thank you very much for all the work you do from all creatures great and small on this planet.

May God bless you

Lynn said…
I'm so grateful to you for writing this letter. I now know why I did not see "Jaws" and when watching the shark week series a few years back disliked the "shark attack" approach. Thank you for the science, from all your years of careful observation. You have helped me to see these marvellous fish for who they are in their totality.
Lynn Kirk
Shiatsu Therapist
Animal Health Technician
Toronto Ontario
Great letter, Ila, I hope there will be a positive response.
Thanks for all your work.
Jupp Kerckerinck-Borg
Mark said…
Very good letter. I hope you get more than a canned response from it. I fully support what you are stating here.

Mark Graf
nature photographer
Michigan, USA
Mark said…
p.s. - Have you considered starting an online petition, like at petition.com to allow more people to sign your letter?
lindae808 said…
I agree it is important and a responsibility to provide the public with useful information versus sensationalism when it comes to our natural world. I truly enjoy and support programs that educate as well as entertain. That should be the goal of any wildlife programing. That is what I expect of Discovery Channel when I tune in. I expect the use of science to open doors to worlds that most of us don't get to experience but would like to know about. I would be offended to know that I wasn't being provided the reality and complete picture and I will turn off any programs that misuse the public trust by misrepresenting our natural world.
Thank you Ila for making shark science a priority and getting the word out about the dire state of their populations.
I wish you all the best.
Sharkman said…
Well Done Ila. I hope that this letter will open the eyes of those that control what is shown on Discovery Channel.
It is high Time that we start getting decent documentaries that show real science and research and not just putting a bad image on sharks with just shark attack reports.

Sharks need to be protected from humans and not the other way round.
Humans are the real predators.

Shark Powered
Marian Benjamin said…
I hope truth wins. I also appreciate your articulate explanation that no balance has been attempted in presenting these creatures. I hope you are heard by the Powers That Be in TV programming. We, the viewers, want truth. I tune out every time I see 'sensationalized monsterization' of sharks. I want clean oceans and they serve an important role toward this goal. I surf and want to know more about them, not to be terrified of them! Thank you, Ila!
Roger said…
Ila, your systemic insight into the issue at hand here is spot on, and poses a real challenge to the Discovery executives, who need to find a way of balancing the need to attract ratings and doing what is good for sharks! Well done.
skippykawakami said…
Thank you! While I always look forward to Shark Week, and have found some truly interesting and non-sensationalistic documentaries there, I too am often appalled at the worst of their entries.

I don't think we should judge books by their covers, sharks by their reputations or documentaries by their titles, however having watched the four documentaries you mentioned, I can definitely say that "Top 5 Eaten Alive" and "Shark Feeding Frenzy" were nothing but lowbrow hysteria, the latter being especially distasteful for masquerading as science to create wholly inaccurate impressions of White Shark behavior.
midget manmidge said…
One thing I do have to mention is that I think Spielberg has actually said that now he looks back on it after realising the impact it has had on the global view of sharks, his decision to film JAWS wasn't his best idea and given the opportunity he would take it back.

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