Nature documentaries as catalysts for change: mapping out the 'blackfish effect'.

Published online
07 Aug 2022
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
People and Nature

Boissat, L. & Thomas-Walters, L. & Veríssimo, D.
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It is essential for us to understand what drives human behaviour if we want to tackle anthropogenic damage to the environment. Popular media can play an important role in shaping public attitudes, behaviours and norms towards wildlife, and documentaries in particular have become an increasingly prominent tool for social change. There is, however, a need for robust impact evaluation both in documentary-making and in conservation, to refine future interventions. The 2013 documentary Blackfish portrayed human-orca interactions at the US-based marine park, SeaWorld. Following its release, SeaWorld suffered financial difficulties and the company underwent structural changes, including a cessation of its orca breeding programme. These impacts have often been attributed to the Blackfish documentary, but little evidence has been provided to justify these claims. We combined an analysis of stock market data and semi-structured interviews with 26 key informants to build an in-depth contribution analysis. We used General Elimination Methodology, a qualitative impact evaluation methodology to build an understanding of the impact of Blackfish. We found a consensus among stakeholder groups that Blackfish induced negative publicity for SeaWorld and a change in people's perceptions of captivity. As a result, attendance at the park decreased and the market value of the company dropped. Blackfish catalysed a whole movement against marine mammal captivity. There were three key factors that led to its impact: the support from major distribution channels which allowed it to reach major audiences, emotional impact of the content and timing of its release. Blackfish benefitted from a perfect storm, building upon decades of activism to create an appropriate cultural climate for its release in 2013.

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