How Shark Week and Jaws Changed Our Everyday Awareness and Perception of Sharks

Have you ever watched a movie or TV show and then changed your behavior because of what you saw? Believe it or not, you probably have. Whether you picked up catchphrases from your favorite characters or bought reusable straws after seeing Finding Dory, the media impacts our perception and actions. 

To better explain this, take the public’s perception of sharks. When the movie Jaws premiered in 1975, the public was mortified. The wildly successful summer blockbuster incited panic, which led to thousands of people hosting or joining fishing tournaments purely to catch as many sharks as possible. Despite the target being sharks, most of the damage affected coral reefs and small fish. 

But the movie did have a positive impact, too. Jaws didn’t just create a mass panic; it also inspired a generation of people who aspired to be like Matt Hooper. Several of those people are now researchers featured on Shark Week, the Discovery Channel’s annual ode to the predatory creatures of the deep. Even though Jaws has been coined as a shark PR nightmare, it paved the way for Shark Week, not just by instilling fear, but by raising an abundance of shark-related questions that are still waiting to be answered. 

Shark Week has always made learning about the ocean’s top predator fun and engaging, but it has evolved through the years as people became less fearful of and more curious about sharks. In the early days, episodes were primarily re-enactments of shark attacks with survivors saying they weren’t angry at the shark. In recent years, the focus has shifted to the presentation of new research and discussions by scientists and celebrities who have shared their thoughts on a range of subjects, including conservation.

So how did they get there? Discovery Channel worked tirelessly to advertise Shark Week as a must-see summer hit. With a goal to help put an end to the fear of sharks, Discovery Channel did something interesting. By playing off of the public’s fear, Shark Week was able to bring out the curious side of viewers. There was a significant change after a few years of programming when viewers took to Twitter asking for research-focused content.

Through experts discussing how rare shark attacks are, celebrities helping to complete research, and an abundance of fascinating new discoveries, Shark Week raised public interest in sharks. 

It’s also important to note that sometimes Shark Week gets it wrong. If you think back to 2013, you may remember a mockumentary about how the megalodon shark was still stalking the oceans today. The episode felt so real to people that Discovery Channel received overwhelming backlash for the misinformation. This was one of the first times Shark Week saw pushback from viewers, and it worked. Viewers were angry. They trusted Shark Week to be factual. This moment was powerful because it signified a change in public perception of sharks. Shouldn’t this have been what the public wanted?

A Jaws-esque show to terrify them? It was not the content Shark Week lovers wanted, and after raising the alarm on social media, Shark Week responded. The next year Shark Week featured a panel to discuss the facts versus the fiction of that episode. 

Shark Week is a great reminder that the media has the power to impact the way we perceive things. 

Even more than that, Shark Week is a reminder that good PR doesn’t ignore the problem, it creates a solution for the issue at hand.