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Fish Out of Water: Shark Week, Science and Storytelling

Fish Out of Water Shark Week Science and Storytelling

Stories are entertaining and people are hardwired to retain stories.

Journalists, PR pros and increasingly of late, marketers, are focused on telling stories as a technique for getting information across.

Fill up an article, video or presentation with compelling statistics and a few stories to go along with it – and people won’t recall the statistics, but they will remember the stories.

There’s a certain danger, or responsibility perhaps, that goes along with storytelling. The danger exists when the mix between information and entertainment – leans more heavily on theater than it does on facts.

It’s a dangerous combination Neil Postman called “infotainment.”  Entertainment gets the ratings, but we haven’t learned anything.  In fact, we might be dumber for the consumption. Postman said we were “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

A Shark Tale Out of Context

The Discovery Channel kicked off its Shark Week amid criticism from the scientific community.  The show has captivated enormous audiences arguably by downplaying facts, in place of embellishing stories – two tenets of propaganda.

In a story critical of the Shark Week production NPR reported: “scientists think the huge audiences – and the hype – have come at the expense of real science.” It offered a story of its own as supporting evidence:

“I’ve loved sharks since I was a little kid,” says 29-year-old marine biologist Jonathan Davis.

‘I’ve always dreamed of being on Shark Week,’ he says. ‘It was my ultimate goal when I was a kid. I always watched it, and it was extremely informative when I was younger.’

So imagine Davis’ joy when Shark Week producers called him two years ago to make a documentary, which they said would be about his research on bull sharks in Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain. As a graduate student at the University of New Orleans, Davis was thrilled when they paid for a day of tracking and tagging sharks.

The producers interviewed Davis about his work and at the end, he says, they casually asked if he ever heard of a legendary shark of the bayous called the Rooken.

“And I said, ‘No, of course not. That sounds like a ridiculous fisherman story,’” Davis says.

The result of a bona fide scientist taking the film crew along for a day?

“To his horror, Davis found himself featured on a ‘documentary’ that had little to do with his research. Voodoo Shark strongly suggested that Davis believed in the Rooken.

‘There’s no way I could’ve known they were going to portray it like that,’ he says.

Mr. Davis told NPR a member of the film crew asked him to let a shark bite him because the event “would be so exciting.”

Two Ways to be Taken out of Context

This anecdote is useful for understanding in at least two ways, how interviews can be taken out of context – visually and linguistically.

1. Linguistically out of context.

Mr. Davis’ contribution – given for the sake of science – was distorted to create the appearance of an authoritative expert lending credibility to a fable. This tends to happen more often in broadcast interviews than in print, for the simple fact an interview might last 30 minutes and the producers will use just seconds of the tape.  It isn’t always intentional, but by virtue of expediency, space and time.

2. Visually out of context. 

While more subtle this occurs when the visuals seem to support the narrative.  In Mr. Davis’ case, NPR says “Voodoo Shark shows Davis and his team doing real research, pulling sharks out of the water and tagging them on the deck.”

This can occur in other ways too.  For example, in the 1980s Walter Mondale launched an attack advertisement on Ronald Reagan critical of his policies toward the elderly. The narrative was scathing, but the visuals depicted Mr. Reagan receiving a warm reception from a smiling, if not mature, audience. Polling afterwards showed the attack ad had little effect (and maybe even helped him) because viewers identified more closely with the visual elements than the description.

* * *

To the Discovery Channel’s credit, the new head of production told NPR the channel is “focusing quite a bit on research and science, more so probably than we have in the past.”

Research and science would certainly be timely given the high profile of sharks have earned amid several recent shark attacks, including those off the coast of North Carolina.  I’d venture we face greater odds of injury from embellished stories than we do from a shark attack.

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Photo credit:  instagram.com/frankstrong 

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