Do wildlife documentaries show us the ‘real’ natural world?

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Wildlife documentaries miss an opportunity to highlight the diversity of nature by focusing too much on mammals and birds, according to a new study.

In a new study published in People and NatureResearchers from the University of Cambridge have shown that while the production of wildlife documentaries has exploded in recent decades, they portray a biased view of the natural world around us.

Our natural world is under threat, from habitat and biodiversity loss to high extinction rates. At the same time, there is a growing disconnect between people and nature, with children’s opportunities to experience the natural world diminishing.

Now more than ever the public experiences nature through technology, from documentaries to social media, which play a key role in shaping public attitudes and awareness as well as an effective tool for social change.

However, nature documentaries have been accused of presenting a pristine view of the natural world while excluding the impact of humans.

Lead author Kate Howlett, Ph.D. student in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge and fellow researchers analyzed an online film database and compiled a list of nature documentaries produced between 1918 and June 2021. A list of 945 documentaries was compiled and divided into seven time periods, from each of of which 15 random documentaries were selected.

For each documentary, researchers recorded every habitat, organism and species featured and whether any conservation message was mentioned.

Overall, the researchers found that wildlife documentaries provided a different picture of the natural world with an increasing focus on conversation. However, they overrepresented vertebrate species, potentially biasing public attention toward this group of animals and away from others.

The documentaries were apparently biased towards vertebrates, which had 81% of the mentions, with birds and mammals collectively accounting for more than half of the mentions, while invertebrates had only 18% of the mentions. This is despite the fact that vertebrates represent only 3.4% of known species compared to 75% for invertebrates. Plants were consistently underrepresented in all time periods.

Representations of insects, fish and reptiles fluctuated widely over the decades, while representations of mammals and birds remained consistently high.

“There’s almost certainly a reason why we’re seeing more mammals and birds—if you want people to be engaged, you need animals that people are already familiar with and care about, or they’re not going to watch,” Howlett says.

“But that risks leaving people with the impression that all of nature is fine. There’s a balance that needs to be there.”

A range of habitats was reported, with rainforest being the most common and deep ocean the least common, and this did not change significantly over the time periods studied.

Furthermore, conservation was mentioned in 16% of documentaries overall, but in almost half of the documentaries of the current decade. No documentary before the 1980s contained a chat message.

The increase in public awareness of chat topics in the 21st century is clear, with reports reaching 47% in the 2020s.

Anthropogenic impacts—human impact on nature—were mentioned in 22% of the documentaries, but never before the 1970s, with the overexploitation of animal populations topping the list.

“We didn’t have to think about how people experienced nature in the past, because it was in everyone’s lives,” Howlett says. “It wasn’t a problem before, but now more and more people are living in cities, towns and urban spaces.”

Findings from the paper are consistent with recent studies suggesting that conservation science has become more focused on vertebrates over the past three decades.

The researchers argue that documentary filmmakers should try to increase the range of species and habitats shown, which could potentially increase awareness of the importance of the range of ecosystems and support for their conservation, as well as appreciation for nature.

“There is scope for filmmakers to focus on urban wildlife and engage audiences by showing them the wildlife in their area and potentially inspiring people to become more involved with local biodiversity,” says Howlett.

“It’s very scary to realize how inaccurate our own perception of the world is, and it’s important to give viewers the right balance between education and entertainment as well as hope and solutions to conservation problems.”

More information:
Kate Howlett et al, Wildlife documentaries present a diverse, but biased, depiction of the natural world, People and Nature (2023). DOI: 10.1002/pan3.10431

Provided by the University of Cambridge

Reference: Knowing your ants from your anteaters: Do wildlife documentaries show us the ‘real’ natural world? (2023, March 15) retrieved March 15, 2023 from

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