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Have wildlife documentaries gone too far – and does it matter?

From Meerkat Manor to Dynasties, big nature documentaries seem to be more Lion King than Life on Earth these days. Has turning animals’ lives into soap operas, giving them names, and relating their lives to ours gone too far?

Recently, a group of academics argued that not only does such an approach misinform the public, it may also harm conservation in the long run. Their research paper, entitled ‘Soap operas will not wash for wildlife’, has been published in People and Nature.

In the paper, they argue that the portrayal of animals in nature shows, while entertaining, risks spreading ‘misconceptions’ about species in the wild. Portraying wild animals as ‘soap opera-style characters’ in this way is ‘neither honest nor helpful’ and can distort public understanding of matters like conservation.

But are they right? After all, TV must entertain and engage as well as inform and educate.

Adam Hart in a laboratory

One of the authors of the research, Adam Hart, Professor of Science Communication at the University of Gloucestershire, is chairing a free, online panel event at 1pm on Monday, 28 June. A group of wildlife and broadcast experts will discuss the structure and role of wildlife documentaries in modern broadcasting and conservation.

Joining Adam Hart will be:

Dr Amy Dickman – Conservation biologist at the University of Oxford, CEO of Lion Landscapes, Head of Ruaha Carnivore Project

Keith Somerville – Former Senior editor at the BBC World Service and a founding member of the BBC College of Journalism. 

Paul Wooding – documentary producer and head of Spark TV, making factual content 

George Verdon – producer and filmmaker working in specialist factual and natural history

Lina Kabbadj – science media producer with Filmmakers for Future: Wildlife (FF:W) a grass roots community of Bristol-based Wildlife Filmmakers building a greener future for Natural History Programming.

Adam said: “Nature documentaries have never been as popular for informing people’s knowledge of the natural world, and influencing their understanding of wildlife, species and habitats.

“Anthromorphism is not necessarily a bad thing. It is where the tendency to portray animals as humans is taken to extremes that we suggest may have a distorting effect on public understanding of human-wildlife relations, and possibly disrupt conservation efforts. Or perhaps we are just a bunch of complaining academics – come along and find out!”

To book your free place at the panel event, visit Eventbrite to register. This event will be delivered by Zoom, and the link to the event will be sent to participants the day before the event.