‘Shark Week’ blasted for ‘overwhelmingly’ featuring ‘White men' as shark experts in Washington Post report

Study's co-author suggested Discovery was being discriminatory, 'maybe it’s not an accident anymore'

The Washington Post published a report Monday slamming Discovery Channel’s "Shark Week" programming for featuring too many White males as shark experts and continuing to peddle "negative messages" about sharks.

The report highlighted a study done by the Public Library of Science led by Allegheny College biology professor Lisa Whitenack. The project observed that "Discovery’s programming emphasized negative messages about sharks, lacked useful messaging about shark conservation and overwhelmingly featured White men as experts — including several with the same name."

Before delving into the study, the Washington Post provided a brief introduction on Whitenack, noting that the biologist "loved sharks as a kid" and watched "Shark Week" every summer. 

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Jupiter, Florida - May 05, 2022: A bull shark gets up close to inspect divers during an eco tourism shark dive off of Jupiter, Florida on May 5, 2022. 

Jupiter, Florida - May 05, 2022: A bull shark gets up close to inspect divers during an eco tourism shark dive off of Jupiter, Florida on May 5, 2022.  (Photo by Joseph Prezioso/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

However, the piece stated, "when the scientists appeared on her TV screen, she rarely saw any women she could look up to." Thinking about that later in life, she lamented, "I don’t come from a family of scientists. I didn’t see very many people that looked like me on television."

As an adult, Whitenack decided to explore these "misconceptions" – as the Post characterized them. The piece claimed, "When the pandemic lockdowns came in 2020, she saw an opportunity to study the source of her old misconceptions. Was ‘Shark Week’ feeding audiences the wrong messages about sharks — and who studies them?" 

This question prompted Whitenack’s study. The report stated, "Whitenack led a team of researchers to examine hundreds of ‘Shark Week’ episodes that aired between 1988 and 2020."

In addition to the study revealing the programming’s negative depiction of sharks, it "featured more White experts and commentators named ‘Mike’ than women," noted Arizona State University conservationist David Shiffman, the study’s co-author. 

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Tiger shark, Galeocerdo cuvier, Tiger Beach, Bahamas. 

Tiger shark, Galeocerdo cuvier, Tiger Beach, Bahamas.  (Photo by: Andre Seale/VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Shiffman implied that this may be due to discrimination on the part of Discovery Channel. He said, "When there are hundreds of people of color interested who work in this field, [and] when my field is more than half women, maybe it’s not an accident anymore that they’re only featuring White men."

The Post noted Discovery has yet to comment on the findings, though they rejected responding to findings from a "preliminary version" of the study in 2021, claiming it "has yet to pass any scientific approvals."

According to the study, "the trend persisted throughout almost all of the television event’s history. Over 90 percent of the 229 experts featured in 201 ‘Shark Week’ episodes were White, the study found, and about 78 percent were men."

Shark Week’s Alison Towner, a marine biologist based in South Africa, got drone footage of three killer whales hunting a nine-foot great white shark. 

Shark Week’s Alison Towner, a marine biologist based in South Africa, got drone footage of three killer whales hunting a nine-foot great white shark.  (Credit: Discovery's Shark Week)

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The piece quoted Minorities in Shark Sciences co-founder and biologist Carlee Bohannon, who praised the study for "putting numbers to her and her colleagues’ long-standing concerns about diversity in both the media and shark science."

Bohannon stated, "We all grew up seeing one type of person on TV. ‘Shark Week’ was really the biggest thing, and it was always filled with White men."