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Attenborough documentaries 'actively mislead audiences' into thinking wildlife is doing fine, scientists warn

Nature documentaries could be “actively misleading audiences” by showing nature as something pristine that is not being damaged by humans, researchers warn.

Scientists looked at the scripts from the four most recent David Attenborough-narrated BBC and Netflix nature series and said they did not show the extent to which nature is being threatened by human activity. 

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Scientists from the universities of Oxford, Newcastle, Kent and Bangor found the Netflix series Our Planet dedicated 15 per cent of the script to environmental threats and conservation. This far exceeded the BBC series Planet Earth II and Dynasties

However, they said it still failed to visually show how threatened the natural world is. 

“One could argue that by using camera angles to avoid showing any sign of people, nature filmmakers are being disingenuous, and even actively misleading audiences,” said lead researcher Professor Julia Jones from Bangor University. 

“The viewer may be led to believe that things cannot be that bad for biodiversity as what they are seeing on the screen shows nature, for the most part, doing fine.

“The inextricable link between threats to the natural world and the high consumption of western lifestyles would be more difficult to ignore if the presence, or even dominance, of commercial agriculture, mining and transport infrastructure were more visible in the landscapes, reducing the space for the awe-inspiring wild spectacles shown.”

Scientists are divided as to how much nature documentaries could increase support for conservation. Previous research has suggested that people are willing to make personal lifestyle changes and increase support for conservation. This generally means that policy change is more likely. 

“However, we still don’t understand the mechanisms by which these changes take place,” said Laura Thomas-Walters, co-author of the study and PhD student at the University of Kent.

“Considerable research is needed to investigate how viewing nature, portrayed as threatened or pristine, in a documentary affects people in ways which might, ultimately, contribute to saving it.”

Scientists said collaboration between filmmakers and researchers could help the audience better understand the issues associated with the destruction of the natural world. 

“By bringing the threats of facing nature into the mainstream (however tentatively) documentaries such as Our Planet help biodiversity and the pressure it faces gain a little more space in the minds of citizens worldwide,” researchers wrote in the paper. 

“Conservation documentaries have repeatedly been shown the positively affect our attitudes to wildlife, but we lack a more nuanced understanding of how artistic and narrative decisions influence behaviour change.

“The time is therefore right to tackle the questions around the extent to which representations of nature on screen affects people in ways which might, ultimately, contribute to conserving that nature.” 

Julian Hector, Head of BBC Studios Natural History Unit told The Independent: “We all recognise the world is in an environmental climate crisis. BBC Studio’s Natural History Unit has and always will strive to do more to champion the natural world. 

“Over one billion people have watched Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II globally. If you were to ask anyone which recent Sir David Attenborough programme has done most to raise awareness for environmental issues and conservation, the answer on most people’s lips would be Blue Planet II.”

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