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Submarine blamed a real ferry accident, in which several passengers lost their lives, on a made-up shark; the search and rescue operators who performed admirably in their response to the accident had to issue a release disavowing Discovery Communications.Actual shark scientists were looped into the Shark Week narrative, often filmed without full knowledge of the theme and purpose of the documentary.The marketing for Mermaids leaned heavily on that reputation.
She was referring to “Mermaids: The Body Found” and “Mermaids: The New Evidence,” a series of Animal Planet specials that aired in 20.
“Mermaids: The New Evidence” was, at the time of airing, the most successful show in Animal Planet’s history.
The conceit: that mermaids were real and that scientists from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration were actively hiding their existence from the world.
A few dedicated scientists, hunted and harassed by government agents (at one point, security footage literally shows men in black removing evidence from a lab), were fighting to expose the truth.
Disney’s Academy Award-winning “White Wilderness,” a 1958 feature that explored wildlife in the high Arctic, famously featured a scene of lemmings so driven with migratory frenzy that they hurled themselves off of a cliff into the freezing sea.
Despite later revelations that, far from documenting natural behavior, the scene was staged and filmmakers chased the animals off a cliff, “lemmings” continues to endure as a metaphor for blindly following a crowd to self-destructive ends.Following the first airing of “Mermaids: The Body Found,” my website, Southern Fried Science, began a concerted effort to respond to that particular flavor of fake documentary.David Shiffman and I published a guide to how scientists can respond and, more importantly, prepare, in the event that they find their research misrepresented through documentary and reality programs that are fabricated, either wholly or in part.In the numerous cases of animal abuse, they cause active harm to the wildlife about which they are ostensibly attempting to educate the public.And the bold and outright fabrications of shows like “Mermaids” erodes the public’s trust in government and scientific organizations.Partially or entirely fabricated nature documentaries aren’t a new development.Documentarians have thrived off manufactured moments since the birth of the format.There is no easy solution, and the success of many of these shows means that the fake documentary phenomenon is here to stay.There is hope: After receiving significant criticism for its programming, Discovery’s head of programming announced in 2015 that the company would phase out these kinds of programming, at least for Shark Week.By calling into question the motives and methods of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, an organization responsible for studying the effects of climate change on the United States’ coasts, Discovery provided validation for this anti-science movement and created an ecosystem ripe for exploitation by the merchants of doubt committed to undermining scientific consensus.Unfortunately, major cable networks have vastly greater reach than all but the biggest research institutes.