IFPRI Videographer Milo Mitchell records a video interview in an experimental maize field with a Trans-SEC researcher in Kilosa, Tanzania.

Photo credit: Mitchell Maher/International Food Policy Institute (https://www.flickr.com/photos/ifpri/25410979691).

By Kate Howlett, Ho-Yee Lee, Amelia Jaffé, Matthew Lewis, and Edgar Turner.

Read the full paper here.

In wealthy countries, indirect, technology-mediated experiences of nature, such as through television programmes or social media are increasingly replacing direct experiences of nature, such as time spent in parks or forests. Portrayals of nature on television and social media are often edited for entertainment purposes and may prioritise aesthetics or excitement over scientific accuracy or realism. Alongside this, biases exist within public awareness and conservation research towards larger, charismatic groups of organisms, such as mammals. Smaller, more unfamiliar groups, such as invertebrates, are often overlooked, attracting less funding and public interest. This could potentially increase their risk of extinction, despite vital contributions to ecosystem functioning. In this context, it is important to understand how different types of media contribute to public awareness of biodiversity and its threats, since these portrayals have the potential to exacerbate or amend existing biases in awareness.

We sampled an online film database to understand whether there are biases in portrayals of the natural world in wildlife documentaries and whether conservation messaging within these kinds of films has changed over time. We randomly sampled 105 documentaries, evenly spread across the last seven decades, recording all organisms, habitats and mentions of anthropogenic threats to biodiversity, and whether or not conservation was mentioned. Afterwards, we identified each organism to the most precise level possible from the way in which it was referred to in the documentary.

The documentaries featured a wide range of animals and habitats. However, when compared to the actual numbers of described species in each group, the films consistently overrepresented mammals and birds, and consistently underrepresented invertebrates and plants. There was high variability in the representation of reptiles, fish and insects across time. The documentaries represented a range of habitats, the most common being tropical forest and the least common being deep ocean. While 41.8% of mentions of vertebrates were identifiable to species, just 7.5% of invertebrate mentions and 10% of plant mentions were identifiable to species. Overall, 16.2% of documentaries mentioned conservation, but almost 50% of documentaries in the current decade mentioned conservation. 22.1% of documentaries mentioned anthropogenic impacts but none before the 1970s, while the relative focus given to different anthropogenic threats did not always mirror their relative severity in the real world.

Our results show that documentaries provide a diverse picture of nature with an increasing focus on conservation, potentially raising awareness of conservation among audiences. However, documentaries also overrepresent vertebrates compared to invertebrates and plants, potentially directing more public attention towards these taxa. We suggest widening the range of taxa featured to redress this and call for a greater focus on threats to biodiversity to improve public awareness of the causes of biodiversity loss.