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Should Nature Documentaries Shock or Inspire?

Scientists recently published an article in the Journal People and Nature arguing that documentaries narrated by David Attenborough misled viewers about the state of the natural world, showcasing it as pristine and ignoring humanity's negative impact upon it.


The scientists argued that further research is needed to understand what type of documentaries have the biggest impact upon viewers and most effectively generate behaviour changes to help protect the environment, sharing their concerns that overly positive portrayals of the natural world might lead people to think conservation was not as imperative.

While it is important not to hide away from the widespread damage the natural world has endured from human activity, constantly producing negative messaging often leads to apathy among the public. Indeed, the term 'climate fatigue' has been coined to describe the response of many people to the continuous dire predictions of the consequences of climate change.


Perhaps the most effective method to engage people is to showcase the beauty of nature to demonstrate what is possible in the world, and then highlight the harms our behaviour is causing and explain how we can help to reduce and amend those harms.


If people can see a positive and desirable end in documentaries that they can aspire to achieve, they can see behaviour changes they make as a method to help achieve that end. If, however, the messaging is constantly negative, it can lead to a sense of hopelessness and inaction; although initially shocking scenes can spark an immediate response, over time they become less and less effective until eventually people turn away and do nothing.


So bravo to David Attenborough for showing us all the beauty of nature and providing inspiration to preserve wildlife and habitat around the world. Although negative messaging can inspire action, it's worth remembering the parable of the man and his coat; David Attenborough can be seen as the sun whose warmth gets the man to take his coat off of his own accord after the wind made him hang onto it even tighter.