From Shark Week to Jaws, pop culture has been pretty nasty to sharks (it is proven now)

Ayaan Paul
Ayaan PaulDec 26, 2022 | 15:33

From Shark Week to Jaws, pop culture has been pretty nasty to sharks (it is proven now)

From Academy Award-winning director Steven Spielberg inadvertently causing the decimation of shark populations to the Discovery Channel series that propagated a negative image of the animals through misinformation, we take a look at how media has influenced the narrative around sharks.

A study published by the Public Library of Science (PLS) claims that Discovery Channel's Shark Week - which features shark-based spectacle and entertainment - emphasised negative messages about sharks and lacked useful messaging about shark conservation.

A compilation of Shark Week posters

The annual series is the longest-running cable television series in history, having first aired in 1988. Ever since, the series has been broadcast in 72 different countries and caused one of the largest temporary increases in US viewers’ attention to any science or conservation topic.

Its position as the largest stage in marine biology giving scientists access to millions of people as an audience has helped researchers get adequate attention and funding to advance their work and careers.

However, Shark Week has been notoriously ill-informed, propagating false narratives and sensationalising sharks for viewership. 

Researchers from the PLS tracked down copies of 202 episodes, coded their content based on 15 or more variables, including locations, interviewees, shark species, scientific research tools, shark conservation and sharks' portrayal. The results found an increasing number of episodes included stories of shark attacks and other fear-mongering messaging rather than positive language describing sharks as incredible animals or ecologically important.

Sharks are one of the most threatened vertebrates on the planet with a third of all known species at high risk. Overfishing and unsustainable fishing methods that harm sharks in the process are the biggest blame in the matter.


However, the large-scale decline in shark population can be attributed to a major motion picture event in 1975, a blockbuster that took the world by storm and changed the way the world perceived sharks for good.

Touted as one of the most ‘terrifying films of all time’, Jaws hit theatres in the summer of '75 and followed a police chief, a marine scientist and a fisherman as they hunt a great white shark terrorising the inhabitants of a small island.

The key problem Jaws created was to portray sharks as vengeful creatures. The story revolves around one shark that seems to hold a grudge against particular individuals and goes after them with the intent to kill.

"Knowing what I know now, I could never write that book today. Sharks don't target human beings, and they certainly don't hold grudges."
- Peter Benchley, author of Jaws (the bestselling novel that preceded the movie)

The Florida Program for Shark Research, US, suggests the number of large sharks fell by 50% along the eastern seaboard of North America in the years following the release of Jaws. Their research suggests that between 1986 and 2000, there was a population decline of

  • 89% in hammerhead sharks,
  • 79% in great white sharks, and
  • 65% in tiger sharks in the North Atlantic Ocean.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4, Jaws director Steven Spielberg said he "truly regrets" the decimation of the shark population following the success of the Oscar-winning film. The director fears sharks are "mad" at him for "the feeding frenzy of crazy sword fishermen that happened after 1975".

A still from Jaws (1975)

Contrary to the perception the film created, Great White sharks have a huge impact on their habitat as a keystone species, maintaining marine life populations that keep the oceans balanced.

Today, almost 50 years since Jaws premiered and 34 seasons since Shark Week debuted, there is finally an increase in concern for shark welfare and a greater understanding of these fascinating creatures.

Once a host of Shark Week, the author of Jaws, Peter Benchley spent the rest of his life since the bestseller launched campaigning for the protection of sharks before his death in 2006.

Jaws author Peter Benchley

The Shark Week study findings by the PLS help reveal how depictions of sharks are still problematic, pseudoscientific, nonsensical or unhelpful. Efforts like the same would hopefully motivate producers to use the series’ massive audience to help sharks and elevate the scientists who study them.

It's well past time that mass media and Hollywood in particular changed the gross narrative formed around sharks as vengeful, evil creatures with an unsatiable bloodlust, when actually they're just really cool big fish with bad eyesight. 

Last updated: December 26, 2022 | 15:33
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