Examining The Content And Impact Of Nature Documentaries
Nature documentaries reach a wide audience, but are they having a positive impact on nature conservation and how can we know? In this paper, the authors examine the content of Netflix’s documentary Our Planet, how it differs from other nature documentaries, discuss the ways nature documentaries can impact conservation efforts, and recommend research topics and methods to improve impact evaluation in conservation.
Our Planet was filmed over four years in 50 countries and released in April 2019. It claims to be a different type of nature documentary because it highlights the issues threatening the natural world. By coding the scripts of Our Planet and three popular BBC nature documentaries, the authors of this study reported that Our Planet discusses threats to nature more frequently and includes discussion of human influence on nature in every episode. While its narrative sets Our Planet apart, the visuals are similar to other documentaries in their lack of portrayals of human impacts on nature.
Nature filmmakers may choose not to show the impact of humans in order to avoid turning the audience away. The authors describe potential consequences of excluding humans from nature documentaries, however, such as misleading viewers into believing nature is better off than it actually is, reinforcing the idea that humans are not part of nature when in fact people rely on natural ecosystems. This obfuscation can also allow viewers to overlook the link between high consumption human lifestyles, and resulting threats to nature.
As outdoor experiences become less common, documentaries may serve as an increasingly important tool for engaging people in conservation efforts. The authors discuss evidence that nature documentaries increase sensitivity to the species portrayed, increase environmental citizenship, increase support for conservation organizations, and generate positive attitudes and social norms than can support policy change. Our Planet is one such documentary that encourages specific actions by guiding viewers to online materials that include steps for making a difference, such as eating less meat, but it is not clear whether the documentary and online materials are leading to positive changes.
In order to understand and maximize the influence of nature documentaries on behavior and nature conservation, the authors call for documentary developers and researchers to collaborate on actionable impact evaluation. They suggest exploring the impact of narrative and visual decisions, positive or negative message framing, the presentation of statistics or individual victims, the role of specific emotions, and post-viewing materials and strategies. The authors recommend combining quantitative and qualitative methods to explore mechanisms of change, subtle differences, and unexpected outcomes to produce both rich insights and generalizable findings.
While documentaries like Our Planet can raise awareness about threats to nature, carefully designed impact evaluations are needed to inform conservation interventions to ensure that positive attitude and behavior changes are achieved. Such findings may also translate to documentaries aimed at other animal advocacy issues. Since documentaries are an increasingly common tool in the animal advocacy toolbox, having a better sense of their impact would be a great thing.