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Researchers: Discovery Channel’s ‘Shark Week’ features too many white guys

And they’re named ‘Mike’

Growing up, Allegheny College Biology Professor Lisa Whitenack somehow managed to overcome the dearth of women on Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” to become a researcher of the ocean predator.

Whitenack told The Washington Post “she rarely saw any women she could look up to” on the show, and so … what would make her think she could go on to study sharks?

Whitenack (pictured) and several other researchers recently published their findings on the high quantity of light-hued males on “Shark Week” in “A content analysis of 32 years of Shark Week documentaries.”

Co-author David Shiffman of Arizona State University believes there may be some sinister racial politics at work.

“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.

Shiffman added there even were more white guys named “Mike” than women on the show.

Dr. Lisa Whitenack (@WhitenackLab) / Twitter(Interestingly, the researchers concede in the study that they assumed the whiteness of the “white” men on “Shark Week” — they did not ask about the “individual racial identities of particular experts” and as such “may have misidentified some hosts’/experts’ self-identified race.”)

The study includes in its sources a link to a 2020 article which similarly criticizes the absence of women and minorities on shark-related programming. The article cites the University of Miami’s Catharine Macdonald as saying “the science is clear that representation matters in attracting and retaining members of historically excluded groups in STEM.”

The Post notes Macdonald also has said women “can also face a misogynistic culture” in the marine sciences.

Even though many females and minorities watch and enjoy shows like “Shark Week,” seeing too many white guys might send them the message that “shark science might not be a very welcoming place,” Macdonald said.

MORE: University researchers: Don’t call them shark ‘attacks,’ call them ‘interactions’

The “Shark Week” study claims Discovery Channel and National Geographic said “it is impossible to include more diverse representations of shark scientists because available shark scientists are predominantly white men.” However, these statements “are undermined” by groups such as Minorities in Shark Science.

From the Post article:

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 [pictured], 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.

Although the study deals with other aspects of “Shark Week” (such as the high quantity of negative portrayals of the show’s subject), Bohannon and Whitenack said “the biggest concern was with the program’s lack of diversity.”

“Diversity in people brings diversity in thought, which ultimately brings innovation. Being able to see someone who looks like you in this field really has an impact,” Bohannon said.

MORE: Professors explain why America is fascinated with ‘Sharknado’

IMAGES: Anna Koldunova/Shutterstock.com; David Reaboi, Lisa Whitenack/Twitter screencaps; ASU screencap

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Dave has been writing about education, politics, and entertainment for over 20 years, including a stint at the popular media bias site Newsbusters. He is a retired educator with over 25 years of service and is a member of the National Association of Scholars. Dave holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Delaware.