In 1842, the infamous showman P.T. Barnum unveiled a truly bizarre creature. In his autobiography, Barnum described it as “an ugly, dried-up, black-looking, and diminutive specimen… its arms thrown up, giving it the appearance of having died in great agony.” The Feejee mermaid, as the mummified remains were called, possessed the torso of a monkey with the tail of a fish. Naturalists from around the world came to examine the specimen, enticed by letters explaining how a Dr. J. Griffin had hooked the strange creature while fishing in the South Pacific. At first Griffin was reluctant to share his find, but somehow, Barnum convinced him to reveal the mermaid to the public. Huge crowds swarmed the Concert Hall on Broadway just to get a glimpse.
Things were not, however, as they appeared: The letters were written by Barnum himself. “Dr. J. Griffin” was only a character portrayed by Barnum’s close friend, Levi Lyman. The so-called mermaid was purchased from Japanese sailors in 1822 and leased to Barnum by Moses Kimball. Barnum even asked for a professional opinion, and was assured by a naturalist that the mermaid was a fake. The tale of the mermaid’s capture, Griffin, and his reluctance to unveil the animal was a publicity stunt. The Feejee mermaid, in all its grotesque glory, was P.T. Barnum’s first major hoax. His knack for trickery, manipulation and showmanship proved highly profitable, and over the years, his circus became known as “The Greatest Show On Earth”.
In his autobiography, Barnum explained how he manipulated so many into believing in the Feejee mermaid. “How to modify general incredulity in the existence of mermaids, so far as to awaken curiosity to see and examine the specimen, was now the all-important question,” Barnum wrote. “I saw no better method than to “start the ball a-rolling” at some distance from the centre of attraction.” So he wrote letters, which appeared in New York papers, from Alabama, South Carolina, and Washington DC. “I may as well confess that those three communications from the South were written by myself, and forwarded to friends of mine, with instructions respectively to mail them, each on the day of its date. This fact and the corresponding post-marks did much to prevent suspicion of a hoax, and the New-York editors thus unconsciously contributed to my arrangements for bringing the mermaid into public notice.”
You might expect such deception and fraud from P.T. Barnum, one of the most notorious showmen of all time. But it seems the executives at Discovery Channel are cut from the same cloth.
On July 10th, a video began circulating showing a suspected bull shark stealing fish off a line in Lake Ontario. That video went viral (with over 500,000 views, and counting), spreading through the media and seeding fear throughout Ontario. The Natural Resources Minister, Bill Mauro, even urged citizens to be on the lookout. “They should report any sightings of this animal and then we can take whatever steps we think are necessary,” he said Wednesday. “If there is a shark in Lake Ontario we need to know about it.” But, it turns out, the whole thing was just a big publicity stunt by Discovery’s Shark Week.
“This video has certainly sparked the conversation around sharks” Paul Lewis, President and General Manager of Discovery, is boastfully quoted as saying in a news release on Bell Media’s website. “We’re ready to feed this fascination next month with more Shark Week hours than ever before.”
The chipper explanation assures us that “Discovery wants to quell the concerns of Canadians everywhere” by coming clean about the hoax. Discovery’s confession is of little comfort to many in the Ontario region who spent the week worrying about what lay beneath the lake’s surface. “It’s got a lot of parents being wary,” Erin Whalen, a waitress at a restaurant on Wolfe Island, told the National Post. “I was really fearful,” local resident Laura Staley told the Vancouver Sun.
Christine Archer, an Aquatic Animal Technician with the University of Ottawa’s Animal Care & Veterinary Service, lives and works about 2 hours from Wolfe Island, where the video claimed to have been shot. “Despite being relatively ‘landlocked’ here, we still like to flock to the water,” she said. “I had people (students, staff) coming to the office and asking me about it in the halls. Everyone seemed a little freaked out.” As someone who works with a diversity of aquatic animals, Archer wasn’t fooled by the video. “Sharks don’t ‘porpoise’ their bodies like that to dive,” she said. “I insisted that the video was clearly fake, but it is hard to convince people.”
When the news confirmed that she was right, Archer wasn’t amused. “I feel that this publicity stunt was in extremely poor taste and irresponsible,” she said. “Not just for the residents and visitors of the region, but for sharks themselves.”
“Sadly, I’m not surprised that Discovery made this video. Shark Week has been getting less and less informational for many years now.”
University of Guelph marine biologist Jim Ballantyne—who was also skeptical of the video from the onset—similarly wasn’t impressed with the viral campaign. “It sort of seems a bit unethical to frighten people,” he said.
It seems unethical because it is.
“There’s no way around it: this video was posted with the intent to deceive,” says Janet Stemwedel, an ethicist and associate professor of philosophy at San Jose State University. “Discovery willfully deceived members of the public—members of its intended and actual audience—which is really hard to reconcile with its claim to be the #1 non-fiction media company. The lie itself, released into the world, damages trust.”
The Ontario shark stunt wasn’t benign—it directly harmed the Lake Ontario community. “There’s more than damaged trust here,” said Stemwedel. “Official statements from Natural Resource Ministers distract attention (and undoubtedly some resources) away from non-fabricated matters of actual importance.” Government officials have expressed concern over the PR stunt, troubled by the very real fear that the local public felt over the fake video.
Though Discovery might think the publicity was worth a little distress, feelings of fear and anxiety are real harm to the community that felt them, says Stemwedel, and says a lot about the kind of relationship Discovery has with its viewership. “They didn’t just lie about the shark, but also about how much their viewers could trust them.”
So why would they create such a video in the first place? University of Miami shark scientist David Shiffman has an answer. “Shark Week seems to believe that real stories about real animals aren’t enough to get the public’s attention, so they lied,” he said. “I wish this surprised me.”
Shiffman is alluding to the fact that forgery and deception seem to have become par for the course for Discovery and Shark Week. It was bad enough when, a few years ago, their child network Animal Planet released a pair of “documentaries” on mermaids, in which they faked video footage to plant the idea that mermaids exist but are being covered up by the government. Those specials, at least, carried a disclaimer that flashed briefly explaining that parts of it were “fictional”. Then, spurred by the popularity of those programs, last year’s Shark Week kicked off with Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives, which opted to use the word “dramatized” over “fictional” in its lightning-fast disclaimer. More than two-thirds of their audience, by their own poll, was convinced by the entirely faked “documentary” into believing C. megalodon may indeed still roam the seas. Discovery didn’t care that their audience and shark scientists worldwide were outraged by the program—they got record ratings, after all.
This year, Megalodon: The New Evidence is among the programs that will air during Shark Week. But another fauxmentary just wasn’t enough for Discovery—they, for some reason, felt the need to drum up fear in Canada to get more people to watch their unscientific nonsense. This time, they’ve gone too far.
“From the perspective of a professional researcher, to have a self-described scientific channel do this sort of publicity stunt is infuriating,” says David Kerstetter, Assistant Professor at Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center.
But for Kerstetter, the lasting issue is that Shark Week has not only failed to provide real, scientific programming: their constant campaign of fraud is damaging to shark science and conservation. “Frighteningly, they’ve somehow done the impossible and actually contributed negatively to scientific research.”
“Rather than having Shark Week engage the audience with stories of the very real (and quite enthralling) research going on with elasmobranchs, those of us in the field now spend our public outreach efforts debunking silly things like “mermaids” and the continuing existence of Megalodon.”
Shiffman has echoed Kerstetter’s concerns over twitter:
— David Shiffman (@WhySharksMatter) July 15, 2014
There’s little doubt that this kind of publicity stunt undermines Discovery’s credibility and is harmful to scientific progress and outreach. Last year, I warned Discovery that their burgeoning reputation for being loose with facts was going to drive scientists away—scientists that they need to create the high-quality, educational programming they purport is their mission. So I asked scientists whether they would work with Discovery.
Some made it clear that they have no interest. “BBC – yes, Discovery – No,” said Eric Heupel, a graduate student at the University of Connecticut. “unless I and any other scientists on show had approval power on the edited version (so final airing version) of the show.”
Unfortunately, such control over content is rarely given to scientists that appear on Discovery. They’re asked for their time and expertise, but rarely get to read scripts, let alone write or correct them. Just look at last year’s Shark Week, for example, which featured the work of shark scientist Neil Hammerschlag and his colleagues in their “Great White Serial Killer” program, but completely distorted the research (and didn’t consult them on it).
“Maybe 5 years ago I would,” tweeted Erik Klemetti, a volcanologist at Denison University. “Right now, it would be hard to be convinced that it wouldn’t be total pseudoscience nonsense.”
@NerdyChristie Nope. No longer support their “message.”
— Melissa C. Márquez (@mcmsharksxx) July 17, 2014
Most, however, were hesitant. “It’s tempting to say no on the basis of their recent and future programing,” said Mike Lowe, a post-doc at Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institution. “But given the right opportunity and some serious soul searching, I would have to consider it.”
“I’d be worried about how it would appear to my colleagues,” said Rebecca Helm, a graduate student at Brown University. “For me there is very little incentive in collaborating with organizations that are likely to misrepresent me and my research.”
“I think this is completely tragic, because organizations like Discovery also have a huge reach, and I want to share science with a large audience. It makes what they’re doing even more hurtful and damaging,” Helm added.
Many were hopeful that the ship could be righted. “I think it’s extremely important to keep trying,” said Victoria Vásquez, Deputy Director at Ocean Research Foundation. “Nothing reaches that sort of audience for sharks, the ocean or any other wildlife. Consequently, I think it’s important to be vocal and consistent with what we want out of Discovery and take every opportunity to change it.”
“If it were on a cool, real science project, then probably yes,” said Greg Gbur, associate professor at UNC Charlotte. “My policy with a lot of problematic publications/channels is to vocally support the good and vocally blast the bad.” Jim Gelsleichter, Assistant Professor at University of North Florida, echoed the sentiment. “You can’t stop trying,” he said,”the best that you can do is learn to speak to the media in a manner that reduces the chances that the unintended message will get out and select wisely.”
@NerdyChristie I would, if I had a say in the content…. Would be nice to help steer it back in right direction. Not a lost cause (yet).
— Lauren Bradshaw (@SharkyBradshaw) July 17, 2014
I would like to believe there’s cause for such hope.
Alas, the path Discovery as set themselves upon leaves me with little to cling to. It seems unlikely that they will ever go back to being the trustworthy media company I used to watch religiously. Instead, they seem hellbent on distorting science and fabricating content to capitalize on fear. Their sensationalized programming, shoddy fact-checking, outright fictions and unethical PR have transformed them. Like P.T. Barnum and the showmen of old, they happily sacrifice the truth to draw a bigger crowd and do whatever it takes for money and fame. Discovery no longer seems to care about the ‘highest quality content’—so long as they can become The Greatest Show On Earth.