Lisa Whitenack loved sharks as a kid. She spent rainy days leafing through a guide to sharks in Reader’s Digest. Every summer, she would watch “Shark Week,” Discovery’s annual TV event that spotlights the ocean predator with seven days of dedicated programming.
“Why would I know I could do that?” Whitenack said. “I don’t come from a family of scientists. I didn’t see very many people that looked like me on television.”
Whitenack, now a biology professor at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., found her way into shark research anyway. 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?
Whitenack led a team of researchers to examine hundreds of “Shark Week” episodes that aired between 1988 and 2020. In a study published last month by the Public Library of Science, their research claims 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.
The programming featured more White experts and commentators named “Mike” than women, said David Shiffman, a conservationist at Arizona State University who was a co-author of the study.
“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,” Shiffman said.
Discovery did not respond to a request for comment on the study’s findings. The company told NBC Boston that it wouldn’t comment on a study “that has yet to pass any scientific approvals” after a preliminary version was presented 2021. It has since undergone a scientific review, Whitenack said.
“Shark Week,” a 34-year tradition and consistent ratings draw for Discovery, has faced criticism in the past. Scientists and TV critics blasted the event in 2020 for announcing a roster of TV specials that featured six White men out of eight named experts.
Whitenack’s study found that 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.
Carlee Bohannon, a marine biologist and co-founder of Minorities in Shark Sciences, praised the study for putting numbers to her and her colleagues’ long-standing concerns about diversity in both the media and shark science. When Bohannon founded her organization with three other Black scientists in 2020, it was the first time any of them had met other Black women in their field.
“We all grew up seeing one type of person on TV,” Bohannon said. “‘Shark Week’ was really the biggest thing, and it was always filled with White men.”
According to a separate diversity study co-written by Shiffman, more than half of the members of the American Elasmobranch Society, an academic group supporting the study of sharks and other fish, are women, but over 70 percent of the group’s leadership positions have been held by men. Women in marine sciences can also face a misogynistic culture, marine biologist Catherine Macdonald wrote in Scientific American in 2020.
“‘Shark Week’ further concentrates power (in the form of publicity and media attention) in the hands of white male ‘featured scientists,’ exacerbating academic power imbalances,” Macdonald wrote.
In the latest study, Whitenack and the other researchers also found that more “Shark Week” episodes included stories of attacks and other fearmongering messaging than positive language describing sharks as “awe-inspiring” or ecologically important, which the study called a missed opportunity.
“Shark Week” also lacked effective messaging about conservation issues, researchers said. Though Discovery has used the show to promote legislation protecting sharks, “Shark Week” rarely gave viewers actionable information about conservation issues, such as avoiding seafoods caught in ways that also trap and harm sharks, the study claims.
But Whitenack and Bohannon agreed that the biggest concern was with the program’s lack of diversity and how that might shape young scientists’ perceptions of marine biology and whether they could enter the field.
“Diversity in people brings diversity in thought, which ultimately brings innovation,” Bohannon said. “Being able to see someone who looks like you in this field really has an impact.”
Whitenack said Discovery hasn’t contacted the research group.
In 2020, National Geographic developed a partnership with Minorities in Shark Sciences that allowed members of the organization to participate in the network’s competing TV program, “SharkFest,” Bohannon said. Seven scientists of color from the group appeared in this year’s programming.
Bohannon appeared on “SharkFest” twice to talk about nurse sharks in the Bahamas and how they have adapted to swim in shallow water. It felt like a milestone — one she wishes more of her peers get to experience.
“Just seeing myself on TV,” Bohannon said, “it was very surreal.”