Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Thou shalt not...

..deceive the Audience!

This is one of the three main commandments famed BBC Natural History Unit producer Jeffery Boswall has postulated when shaping the approach to ethics in Natural History broadcasting.

One would think this is pretty much self evident and certainly laudable.
After all, according to this interesting paper

In developed countries, natural history documentaries are the most important source of information about animal life.
Although naturalistic tourism seems to be increasing, for the great majority of people in the affluent societies real-life interactions with animals are mostly limited to pets and to the species living in urbanized environments. Therefore, for lay people not trained in biological science, documentaries are likely to be the main source of knowledge about many species (such as animals living outside western countries or living inside these countries in the wild). From this fact, it can be argued that many humans have an interest in the production of natural history documentaries.

Generally speaking, viewers look at documentaries as a reliable source of information about animals. They trust documentaries to present true facts and they have a basic moral interest in not being deceived (and in some cases such interest is also protected by a right). Producers and film-makers have a responsibility not to deceive the viewer (Mittermeier & Relanzon 2008).

Even if natural history documentaries are perceived as depicting reality, in general it must be acknowledged that they do not show ‘plain facts’. It is very likely that what is depicted is not free of the film-makers’ opinions and values.
Therefore, the interest of viewers not to be deceived cannot be interpreted as the interest to see ‘plain facts’. Watching a natural history documentary (like a news reportage) entails the viewer accepting the facts as seen from the film-maker’s point of view.

When does this mediation threaten the viewers’ interest in not being deceived?
Generally speaking, it could be said that the viewers’ interest is protected if the information they get is in agreement with data produced by the scientific community (or, at least, if they are informed that the documentary disagrees with the currently accepted scientific point of view). When documentaries give explanations of animal behaviour in agreement with ethological research, then viewers have the chance to get the ‘state of the art’ of human knowledge about animal life. None the less, given the popular nature of documentaries, scientific explanations must be translated into terms understandable by lay people...

A more realistic goal would be to start a process of elaboration of international guidelines shared among the different professionals involved in the making of documentaries. To start this process, public debate and discussion of ideas are essential.

As I said: laudable!
But what happens in reality?

Chris Palmer has published a remarkable opinion piece which I invite everybody to read in its totality. His take on Ethical Issues is so important that I feel the need to cite it in its entirety, together with some excerpts from his thoughts about Presenter-Led Programs.
Please bear with me and continue reading - it is truly remarkable!

Issues about how animals are filmed in the wild have become increasingly controversial.
While many wildlife filmmakers behave responsibly, the industry has its share of producers, directors and camera operators who continue to put a great shot ahead of the welfare of the animals they are filming. Some filmmakers "stress" an animal by getting too close. Others stage phony scenes to make wildlife seem more dangerous than it really is. Networks and corporate sponsors may exert undue influence on film content as they try to "get their money's worth" from every scene.
Because of this, animals are being endangered and audiences are being deceived.

The proliferation of wildlife shows and the ubiquity of cameras have created a kind of "wildlife paparazzi" that harass and endanger animals to capture "money shots."
Amateur videographers, influenced by wildlife documentaries, venture too close to their subjects. The aggressive tactics filmmakers use to draw animals to a film site and capture dramatic, sometimes even unnatural scenes on tape - think man-made feeding frenzies - have created "wildlife pornography." Animals are exploited for viewers' pleasure.

Viewers often assume that everything in wildlife films is natural, which often isn't the case.
Sometimes scenes are contrived, animals are captive and stories are invented. Pressures are put on filmmakers by networks to obtain eye-popping footage, whatever the cost. This encourages them to "stage" behavior in order to obtain the breathtaking action scenes that viewers have come to expect.

Wildlife films feed a strong curiosity people have about the natural world, and audiences want the portrayals to be authentic.
They want to see wildlife and wilderness untainted by the hand of man. Audiences don't want filmmakers to do any harm to those beloved animals or their environment. When audiences discover that something they see in a natural history film is packaged, inauthentic or contrived, they feel cheated, misled and fooled. But the line between authenticity and artifact is thin and easily crossed. Filmmakers debate where the line is and where unethical behavior begins.

On location, there is often little time or inclination to focus on ethical issues, such as whether wild animals are being unfairly harassed.
Looming deadlines, bad weather, budget problems, equipment breakdowns, contract disputes and logistic crises often take precedence. Nevertheless, ethical issues are important and can be grouped into four categories:

  • Getting too close
  • Staging
  • Misleading and lying to audiences
  • Animal harassment.

Examples of irresponsible filmmaking in recent prime time wildlife films include television hosts taking hot spring baths with snow monkeys, scientists sticking their hands into snake holes and then bragging about their wounds, and a television host plunging around in dense brush along a river bank while attempting to get close to a grizzly bear.

These shots are a desperate attempt by networks and filmmakers to attract viewers and get good ratings. If a show receives a low rating, it will likely be cut from the schedule and the film producer's income will take a beating. The pressure for ratings explains the emphasis in wildlife films on predation, sex, aggression and violence; and the lack of airtime focusing on cooperative and nurturing behaviors, habitat preservation and conservation. To be heard above the noise and to win big audiences, networks feel they need to shock and surprise their audiences.

Television wildlife host and scientist, Brady Barr, from the National Geographic Society says scornfully that all audiences and networks seem to want today is a "highlight" reel. By that, he means a program with relentless and supercharged excitement. The intense competition for ratings pushes hosts and filmmakers to go to extremes in the quest for bigger audience shares.

Today television has become intensely ratings driven.
As a result, there has been an increase in sensationalism in wildlife television programs as producers feverishly compete for ratings. Many presenter-led programs have gotten out-of-hand as hosts will seemingly do anything to try to achieve high ratings with super-charged and constant excitement. They often goad dangerous animals into dangerous confrontations, which are extremely stressful for both parties, even if highly entertaining.

There is clearly a dark side to this kind of entertainment-cum-education.
Animals and presenters are put at risk while also provoking "copycat" harassment of animals by members of the public. Viewers watch charismatic personalities on television get close to wild animals and are tempted to try to do the same themselves.

We have reached a state in the wildlife filmmaking industry in which the very animals we mean to protect may be compromised or hurt in the process of capturing them on film.

When we look at the early years of the wildlife filmmaking industry, we can see there has always been temptation toward exploitation.
Yet, the modern explosion of reality television has only increased this temptation, making it more appealing for broadcasters to air reality shows with questionable and ill-advised content. Hosts today manhandle animals for the sake of ratings rather than education.

Just amazing: so true and so insightful!
Alongside Boswalls Thou shalt not deceive the Audience, Thou shalt not harm the Animals and Thou shalt be willing to disclose how the Film was made, Palmer postulates a further commandment: Thou shalt not meaninglessly sensationalize an Animal.

As Derek Bousé explains in his fascinating contribution Computer Generated Images: Wildlife and Natural History Films (please read it!), this is not a new phenomenon. Scientists and conservationists have always voiced their concerns and have often been regarded as interlopers seeking to enforce constraints on creativity, if not to drag down ratings and sales.

"We are in the entertainment business", the producers and distributors protested, "and must sell to the global market".

Still, there was something to the scientists' and conservationists' arguments that wildlife films are a special category of images and that they carry a heavier burden than most other forms of art or entertainment to be accurate and truthful.
In an age when so many people received most of their information about nature from television, there were legitimate concerns about nature television's influence on public attitudes, especially given that audiences, in their role as consumers and voters, might make decisions that could affect the fate of species and habitats...

Could the ratings-driven emphasis on scenes of predation, conflict and danger in wildlife films lead to trepidation, fear and loathing (at least toward some species) among viewers?
"How we treat others" film critic Richard Dyer (1993) has argued, "is based on how we see them".

Thus, if an animal were widely portrayed (and therefore seen) as a treacherous, dangerous killer, would there be popular support for its protection if it faced extinction?

Sound familiar?
The debate continues.
We've posted our opinion about the portrayal of Sharks and our role as gatekeepers time after time again. And together with others, we've even come up with what we think are equitable solutions.

At first glance, we've clamored in vain: this year's Shark Week is worse than ever before and what is even worse, some from within our community have willingly and knowingly aided and abetted that despicable anti-Shark rubbish.
And yet, I'm discerning a change of perception and I am optimistic about the future.

We're all in this together.
And as Patric says: we can, and have to do better!
And we will!


TheDorsalFin said...

Great post!

Lupo said...

Thanks Mike,

I really enjoyed your post.
It says a lot of truth in so few words.

I wonder if the hacks at Discovery Channel would care to look inwards for real discovery after reading your post and Jeffrey Boswell and Chris Palmer's views.
I'll listen to them long before I will listen/watch DC.

Thanks again,


Horizon Charters Guadalupe Cage Diving said...

Epic post Mike.

Truthful and to the point.

Douglas Seifert said...

Bravo Mike. This is a subject of great importance but is complicated because morality, ethics and the entertainment industry are, more often than not, strange bedfellows.

In the end, it all boils down to talent. You can watch a film on Edward O. Wilson and ants or one of Howard Hall's films and be endlessly fascinated, entertained and informed. You can watch Erich Ritter jabbering nonsense with Nigel Marven on Discovery and be bored to distraction and angry from having your intelligence insulted.

If more people would vote by changing the channel, perhaps Discovery and others might take the higher road.

DaShark said...


Alas, we all know the true meaning of vox populi, don't we.

the One called "Bitey"... said...

This is what blogging is all about - another great read, Mike.
The points made are also applicable to other, seemingly unrelated, areas of our lives and society at-large.

I think we actually have two issues here - not just the issue of sensationalistic "highlight reels" of "Natsploitation Films' (-copyright! Ha!..), but the concomitant issue of a large segment of society that says "so what?". I see it in the financial business all the time: "massive gaming of the system creates unfair advantage and massive wealth gaps..." -"SO WHAT?"
By the same token, "harrassment of animals and destructive encroachment creates a caricature of Nature..." -"SO WHAT? It's my entertainment dollar, as it were, so I want - I DESERVE! - action, action, action, no matter what is destroyed in the process."

How do we - how CAN we?.. - rewrite this sort of arrogancce? (Or is this sort of arrogance our eternal curse as a society?)......

Ila France Porcher said...

A wonderful, insightful article, Mike! Thank you!