News at Mason
Fact or fake? Mason student goes head-to-head with Shark Week
March 20, 2019 / by Mary Lee Clark
It sounds like a documentary and looks like one, too—but what if the show you’re watching is actually fake? Would you stop watching?
This is what Lauren Back, a senior studying communication and environmental science, asked about the popular television programming that takes place every year—Shark Week.
"We're in a time period where people are using social media as the only way that they get news,” said Back. ”And I think that's really great when you’re following sources like [the] BBC and other big news companies, but not when you're following things like Shark Week and you're expecting it all to be factual.”
Discovery Channel’s Shark Week features various shark-related content. Back conducted research through an Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities and Research (OSCAR) grant to analyze how Shark Week’s content has shifted from education to entertainment, how that shift is affecting the way people view sharks and whether or not people perceive Discovery Channel as a credible source of information.
Back found that people don’t take Shark Week seriously anymore.
Back said her survey results showed that people are aware of Shark Week’s lack of credibility. Responses most often cited Shark Week’s infamous megalodon special—a “documentary” about a 100-foot shark that killed people off the coast of South Africa that was completely fake—as a reason to stop trusting or watching the programming.
Shark Week has been around for roughly 30 years, but its content has changed over the years from educational programming, like documentaries, to sensational and mostly inaccurate shows, even going as far as including (or incorporating) faked footage of sharks. Much of the content is centered around mockumentaries, celebrity appearances and sharks attacking humans.
"It is really astounding to see how many things are just not true," said Back.
Back worked with her mentor Richard T. Craig, an associate professor of communication at Mason, whose own research focuses on the production, distribution and consumption of media content.
Craig—a fan of Shark Week—said Back began to explore the idea of combining her interests in science and media, and the ways she can pursue both, in his media theory class. Craig advised Back on data-collection methods and said that, in the beginning, they considered focusing her research on content analysis, which would require spending hours watching various seasons of the program. In the end, he said, after finding that episode archives weren’t readily available, Back decided to analyze public perception of the content instead.
Back said she is planning to return to Mason for her master’s degree in communication so that she can pursue a career in science communication and work on creating fact-based content.
"Misinformation leads to misconceptions, which leads to all sorts of other things,” said Back. “I think it makes it harder for people who are in conservation and environmental science to dispel that."