Mass Media Ethics in Films and Videos

Early in my career I delivered snake programs with live snakes for people to touch or see at a state park. Each year my live snake show at the Illinois State Fair would draw four or five daily audiences of hundreds. I was trying to provide an alternate narrative to the misinformation about snakes delivered through movies, TV news reports and friends’ flawed stories, exaggerated over time. One of my examples from that time period, the 1970s:


Remember Tarzan movies with Johnnie Weismueller? Tarzan is walking through the African jungle, an Austalian cockatoo sings from the treetops, an American alligator yawns in the river nearby, a Central American jaguar growls from the underbrush and a South American boa constrictor falls 5,000 miles sideways from a tree landing right on Tarzan’s chest. The 200-pound man wrestles the 15-pound snake with only his bare hands and a 10-inch knife. Most of what we hear and see about snakes is just as bizarre and just as made-up as that scenario.


Movies back then employed stock footage from diverse sources to tell their stories. Accuracy and ethics were not discussed. But decades later, it seems little has changed, or has it? We expect movies based on fiction to present unbelievable events and we overlook things that are unrealistic since it’s supposed to be entertainment, but what if credible non-fiction videographers and storytellers do that same thing?


Animal Planet, National Geographic Explorer and Discovery channels provide cable programming on diverse nature and culture topics. From Shark Week to Rattlesnake Republic to Finding Bigfoot, these programs attempt to build an audience with seemingly real content. Are their producers concerned about accuracy, conservation issues and the ethical treatment of animals?


Chris Palmer is a successful wildlife videographer who teaches about his profession at American University. In a recent TED talk he spoke candidly about the ethical choices a filmmaker makes routinely. Much of what we have seen and enjoyed in video storytelling about wildlife is a blend of real footage shot in the wilds and staged shots that help tell the story. The public is usually disappointed when they find out that seemingly realistic views into the private lives of animals are often confections, not the amazing videography they seem to be.


Palmer points out that our very best cable channels about animals now tilt heavily towards overly dramatized dangers. Rattlesnake Republic on the Animal Planet follows four groups of rattlesnake hunters to varied setting for roundups that make a spectacle of animal cruelty. On another program, “researchers” seek the mythical creature, Bigfoot. Pseudoscience gets better ratings than real science and program executives give us what we want, not what we need. Chris Palmer ends his TED talk with his thoughts on what we might do to improve the situation. I urge you to listen to his talk and consider his ideas.


Nature centers, zoos, museums, aquariums and wildlife sanctuaries seem to be the logical alternative for people to learn about the real world and counter what they think they know from sensational but inaccurate and overdramatized cable shows. But it may be a challenge to draw people away from their videos and TVs to take part in activities based in the real world. How do you compete with and/or complement the virtual programming in your area?


– Tim Merriman




Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

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