Life in Salt: David and Goliath – One Man’s Quest to End Myth Mongering at the Discovery Channel – A Scuttlefish Feature
by Carolyn Sotka
Depiction of a megalodon. Image: CC BY 3.0 Karen Carr
On January 8, 2015, the Discovery Channel’s new president Rich Ross shared a surprising new commitment. While on the Television Critics Association press tour, he declared that starting in 2015, Discovery (and its subsidiary Animal Planet) will not run any new fake-documentaries. He also announced the replacement of several senior-level executives to oversee documentaries, specials and scripted programming. Discovery networks had aired so-called ‘docufiction’ shows, touting the existence of mermaids and the extinct megalodon shark. This docufiction phenomenon is a fairly new phenomenon – a new media reality where entertainment blurs reality and mocks science altogether. As a result of these shows, an astonishing number of viewers actually came to believe the megalodons still existed and mermaids existed in the first place.
For one scientist in particular, the announcement of Discovery’s change in tack represented a personal vindication – the result of a two-year campaign to stop the spread of disinformation through these fictitious programs. David Shiffman, a Ph.D. student in shark ecology at the University of Miami, Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy, and a senior correspondent for the blog Southern Fried Science has been among the most vocal opponents of these programs. To Shiffman and his colleagues in the scientific community, shows like these represent a colossal – and even dangerous – blunder of myth mongering.
“I would have loved these Discovery Channel programs – if they were on the SyFy channel instead.” David Shiffman in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina tagging a shark. Photo courtesy of David Shiffman.
David Shiffman’s own fish tale story began over 26 years ago – when he watched the first ever Shark Week series on the Discovery Channel. He hasn’t missed a Shark Week since and is one of the series’ greatest fans, because as he describes it, Shark Week altered the course of his life, education and career. “Growing up in Pittsburgh, far from the ocean, documentaries like those on the Discovery Channel played a huge role in getting me interested in studying marine biology,” he said.
Over the decades, Shark Week would become the highest grossing series on the Discovery Channel. In the past, the series had been generally grounded in science – focusing on shark behavior, conservation, natural history and the brilliant, dedicated and often colorfully animated characters that worked with sharks. Shark Week was intentionally released during the Northern Hemisphere summer to raise awareness and appreciation for sharks during the height of beach season. But in the last several years, Shiffman and his colleagues began to notice disturbing changes in the programming of Shark Week – increasing characterization of sharks as “man eaters,” and reliance on fear mongering being at the top of the list. But it was actually another Discovery show – Animal Planet’s first blatantly fictional, ‘Mermaids: The Body Found,’ followed a week later with‘Mermaids: The New Evidence,’ in May and June of 2013, that made his scientific blood boil. Here was a completely fictional documentary series that aside from a brief disclaimer, gave no indications it wasn’t the real thing.
Looking back, it would seem that “Mermaids” planted the seed that would bloom into the fictional rebirth of Discovery’s megalodon a month later. One particuarly outrageous segment of “Mermaids” showed a ‘pod’ of mermaids 1.6 million years ago watching a megalodon kill a whale. The patriarch “merman” then sacrifices himself to save his pod. A noble gesture to be sure. But completely made up all the same. Shiffman used his blog Southern Fried Science to unleash several posts criticizing the Animal Planet for encouraging their audience to believe in mermaids when there is zero evidence that mermaids are alive today or have existed.
But despite the uproar from scientists and other rational human beings, the game of TV is all about ratings. “Mermaids” had the highest viewership since the 2006 broadcast of the memorial of Steve Irwin – the beloved Australian zoologist who put Animal Planet on the map. The shows drew close to 2 million viewers, which further rattled the cages of the ocean science community. According to Shiffman, “My Facebook newsfeed was absolutely full of shocked and angry statements by marine biologists from around the country.”
Slate took notice of the spiraling trend of docu-fictions appearing on the once accountable media networks and invited Shiffman to guest blog with his post ‘No, Mermaids Do Not Exist: What Animal Planet’s fake documentaries don’t tell you about the oceans’. Even government agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stepped up to the plate to issue a rebuttal and statement against the show’s fabrications.
Yet the rhetoric ran so deep into the “Mermaids” fan base that Shiffman actually received death threats from viewers who saw him as a conspirator to keep the existence of mermaids from the public. “The Discovery Channel not only misinformed the public, but actively encouraged people to mistrust actual scientists and scientific organizations,” he said.
Top to bottom, two megalodons, a whale shark and a great white. Image licensed under Creative Commons by Matt Martyniuk
A month after “Mermaids,” Shiffman joined close to five million viewers across 73 countries for the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. He pondered with amusement how the Discovery Channel would spin their new show ‘Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives’. He hoped that the show discussed the legends that allow this giant, 2.5-million-year extinct super predator to ‘live on’ in history, and pontificated on the lives of these true monsters of the sea. It was a topic with all the factual scientific makings for great television.
But as the show began, Shiffman stared in disbelief. “Megalodon” opened with a fictional South African fishing journey that ends in disaster – the boat sunk by a giant shark called Submarine – followed by an equally fake newscast about the incident. ‘Expert’ after ‘expert’ was cited, while “doctor” Colin Drake, who searched for Submarine, was played by an actor.
A completely fake photo for the completely fake documentary “Megalodon, The Monster Shark Lives.”
Then, in War-of-the-Worlds fashion, the ultimate disregard for integrity: At the end of the two-hour show, a mere three-second statement appeared onscreen that told viewers what they had just watched was not real. “A completely fictional documentary about sharks was shocking and outrageous,” Shiffman said. “Shark Week used to be about science, natural history and conservation, and now they are just making up stories entirely?”
Screenshot from the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week via Snopes
Shiffman and the team at Southern Fried Science had every right to be alarmed. An online poll taken after the show by the Discovery Channel showed that 73% of the participants believed that the monster ‘meg’ shark lives on in the deep, deep ocean. Shiffman joined other outraged ocean scientists, educators and communication specialists in coordinating a campaign to debunk the show – and Discovery’s apparent new fakeus operandi.
Meanwhile, the blogosphere erupted with memes.
The above meme honors infamous Happy Days “Jump the Shark” episode that not only spelled doom for the long-running series, but gave a new term to the American media lexicon.
But by far the most amusing and on-point slam of the program came by way of John Stewart’s The Daily Show. Guest host John Oliver absolutely ripped Discovery a new one. “You faked a two hour shark-gasm and your disclaimer was three seconds at the end?” Oliver said, “You know no one saw those blinking lights at the bottom of the screen, don’t you? Cause before the end of that show, they were too busy calling their families to say, ‘get the hell out of the ocean!'”
Another counter-attack came from shark researcher and world-renowned naturalist writer and illustrator Richard Ellis, who had gone through a similar experience when a copy of his book Great White Shark was shown in the film Shark Attack 3: Megalodon in 2002. The movie altered the book to include pages that simply did not exist.
The altered pages of Ellis’ book contained ‘proof’ of the existence of the megalodon during the dinosaur era – actually feeding off another book – Steve Alten’s science fiction novel Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror which depicted a C. megalodon killing a tyrannosaurus rex on its cover. Ellis sued the film’s distributor, Lions Gate Entertainment, asking for a halt to the film’s distribution along with $150,000 in damages.
Ellis penned a Shark Week guest blog on The Drippler, “Each August, Shark Week takes over our lives. Unfortunately, the message of Shark Week doesn’t do much to remedy the poorly deserved reputation of sharks… Despite massive evidence to the contrary, sharks continue to be portrayed as mindless killers lurking off shore—or in the surf, or in the wake of boats—awaiting the hapless human who enters their territory, intentionally or accidentally.”
Amazingly, despite all the negative blowback, Discovery aired a follow-up – Megaladon: The New Evidence. Plenty of Discovery’s 2014’s other programming was equally troubling. Titles like Shark of Darkness, Zombie Sharks, and Lair of the Mega Shark took Shiffman back to the blog-o-sphere:
“Shark Week documentaries are watched by tens of millions of people, and they generate almost twice as much Twitter conversation as the infamous “Red Wedding” episode of Game of Thrones. I speak to hundreds of high school students each year, even earning an award as “Florida’s marine science educator of the year.” Not once since ‘The Monster Shark Lives’ aired have I spoken to a group of children and not been asked about the megalodon.”
Shiffman’s blog has attracted hundreds of thousands of views, thousands of re-tweets, and media coverage from the likes of Time, USA Today, National Geographic, The Huffington Post, Discover Magazine and even Fox News and Glenn Beck’s The Blaze.
Fast-forward a year to Shark Week 2015, which is scheduled to air on July 5. Will Discovery’s new President Richard Ross hold true to his word or will the myth mongering on Discovery and Animal Planet continue? Since the announcement in early January, what we have seen is not too promising. When you Google ‘megalodon,’ the second search engine hit links to the Discovery Channel and the megalodon series web page with its fake content. So even if no new docufictions see the light of day, the old ones continue to promulgate misinformation.
Also over the last few months, Shark Week has released numerous incorrect social media posts to its over 230,000 followers that keep Shiffman and others continually monitoring their feed to correct inaccuracies. This is a case in point for how social media can misshape our collective perceptions, marginalize science and promote unsubstantiated facts on a scale that we have never seen before.
There is a time and a place for docufiction. Perhaps a new mash-up of Sharknado and the Meg shows could be a new hit ‘The Killer Wave’. Image from Chris Bennier.
Read David Shiffman’s open letter to new Discovery Channel President Rich Ross, urging him to return to the roots of the Discovery Channel and its scientific credibility. It’s not only within their reach to showcase new, exciting and scientifically credible stories, it’s their purpose… it is the ‘Discovery’ Channel after all. – CS