Do nature shows deceive us into thinking our planet is fine?

Research into recent BBC and Netflix nature documentaries suggests that while they increasingly mention threats faced by the natural world, they rarely show the full extent of human-caused environmental destruction

There is overwhelming scientific consensus that nature is being severely affected by humans, the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, and that this has serious impacts. Nature documentaries have sometimes been criticised for failing to show the true extent of this environmental loss. A new study found that while recent high-profile nature documentaries talk more about the threats facing the inspiring natural wonders portrayed, nature is still mostly visually depicted as pristine and untouched, potentially resulting in a sense of complacency among viewers.

Researchers from Bangor University, University of Kent, Newcastle University and University of Oxford analysed Netflix’s Our Planet alongside BBC’s Dynasties, Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II to determine the frequency of words that mention environmental threats and conservation successes. Promotional material for the Netflix series Our Planet highlights its focus on revealing the key issues that urgently threaten the existence of natural wonders and wildlife spectacles. While the series does indeed talk more about threats (and the potential effectiveness of conservation actions to address these threats) than the previous BBC offerings analysed, the researchers note that visually the series is very similar to these BBC documentaries. The rapid conversion of habitats across the planet and the impacts of humans almost everywhere is hardly shown.

The researchers suggest that such programmes may leave viewers thinking that biodiversity is in a better state than it really is. Professor Julia Jones from Bangor University and the lead author says that “by using camera angles to avoid showing any sign of people, nature film makers are being disingenuous, and even actively misleading audiences. For instance, while the Our Planet commentary notes that the dry forests of Madagascar are threatened by burning, the editors made a concerted effort to avoid showing images of the extremely rapid burning that was going on when their team were in the field”.

The documentaries also do not show the human communities living within or dependent on the areas filmed. Dr Niki Rust of Newcastle University adds that “by failing to show humans or human presence within the environment, viewers may be led to believe that humans should be separated from the rest of nature.” The researchers argue that this could result in ignoring the needs of Indigenous and local peoples living with wildlife.

The researchers acknowledge that showing nature as unblemished may be important for engaging the public and inspiring love and affection for the natural world. Dr Diogo Verissimo, from the University of Oxford, stated that “there is limited evidence on the causal relationships between viewing a documentary and subsequent behaviour change. Nature documentary producers should work with researchers to better understand these positive and negative impacts”.

Laura Thomas-Walters, a co-author of the study from the University of Kent says “we need to know how viewing nature, portrayed as threatened or pristine, in a documentary affects people in ways which might, ultimately, contribute to saving it.”

Jones concludes that “many of us working in conservation are probably doing what we do because we were inspired by Sir David Attenborough’s amazing documentaries, which we watched as children. However, perhaps the time has come to be more honest about just how bad things are in many parts of the world. The challenge is-would such a wakeup call result in more conservation action or would it simply turn people off?”

Publication date: 17 September 2019