Wildlife Documentaries: A Hidden Truth

The irrefutable fact underlying humankind’s continued existence on this planet is that we are destroying it. It is common knowledge that the way we treat the earth is proving detrimental, having seen most technological advancements in the last century take their toll. Burning fossil fuels, producing mass waste, and commercialisation are among the heavy contributors to the degradation of our natural environments. You can’t argue against that.

School student attending the Global Climate Strike in Sydney, 2019

Consequently, we have seen the rise in awareness around climate change skyrocket over the past decade. Climate strikes, global power reduction initiatives such as Earth Hour, and the popularisation of more eco-friendly diets like vegetarianism and veganism all indicate there is hope for our planet’s survival. Since the 80’s a massive contributor to raised awareness of our natural environment has been the production of wildlife documentaries. These documentaries aim to educate us about our planet, allowing us to experience some of Earth’s most beautiful natural phenomena from the comfort of our homes. They serve as a critical tool in our education around the need for conservation, but how well do they actually influence our behaviour?

Looking into articles surrounding effectiveness of wildlife documentaries as catalysts for performing  positive change within our lives, I found that while drawing on viewers empathy towards wildlife and their threatened environment, there is little to no evidence that suggests observing these documentaries actually elicits any behavioural change.

So I pose the question,

How effective are wildlife documentaries as a call to action when instigating positive change?

Whilst conservational motivations are prominent in the production of wildlife documentaries, when looking at the success of any given film, commercialisation is imperative. It can be argued a hallmark of documentary filmmaking is the ‘creative licence’ employed by a filmmaker to create a digestible film, which often hides unpleasant realities (Richards, 2014). Such has been the case for many popular nature documentaries produced in the last decade, creating a romanticised view of nature instead of one outlining real threats to the environments we live in.

Intro still from BBC’s Frozen Planet (2011)

Sarah L’Estrange, in her article ‘Are wildlife documentaries contributing to environmental ignorance?’ (2014) describes the initial rejection of a final episode of David Attenborough’s 2011 Frozen Planet series by Discovery Channel. The network thought Attenborough’s warnings of the dangers of climate change unnecessary, just one example of how a ‘romanticised view of wilderness’ can be used to hide ‘the darker side of habitat destruction’ (L’Estrange, 2014).

In the analysis ‘Nature documentaries and saving nature’ (2019), Jones et al. explore how many wildlife documentaries deviate from visually portraying the anthropogenic impacts on our environment. Whilst Netflix’s Our Planet (2019) audibly describes consequences of detrimental human activity on various ecosystems, it coheres with the trend of avoiding most visual depictions of human impact and consequently perpetuates the misleading idea that nature is better off than it really is.

The study suggest that more research needs to be undertaken, both qualitative and quantitative in order to explore the behavioural change mechanisms that wildlife documentaries are inciting. Whilst Our Planet differs from previous wildlife documentaries in that it implores viewers to take action through visiting their website,  more data is needed to determine whether this action has a positive effect as a result. Jones et al. indicate that despite documentaries having shown a positive effect on viewers attitudes towards wildlife, ‘we still lack a more nuanced understanding of how artistic and narrative decisions influence behaviour change’.

Despite its few misgivings, Our Planet seems to be paving a path towards a more consequential form of media driven conservationism. In the above graph, Jones et al. compare Our Planet with previous wildlife documentaries, analysing the percentage of script that focusses on what is not well within the natural world. They indicate that almost 15% of the total word count relates to this. Additionally, they convey how Our Planet includes mentions of threats in every episode, whereas most previous series documentaries refrain from this until the last episode.

Taking what I have learned so far in my preliminary investigation of the topic, my aim is to analyse more sources in order to create a more comprehensive understanding of the power wildlife documentaries have in instigating change. The topic of conservational involvement acquired through production of media forms such as documentaries is one I feel is greatly relevant when discussing emerging issues within media, as it forms a basis of how we can begin to improve on what we already know as a planet.


JONES, J. P. G., THOMAS-WALTERS, L., RUST, N. A. & VERÍSSIMO, D. 2019. Nature documentaries and saving nature: Reflections on the new Netflix series Our Planet. 1, 420-425.

L’ESTRANGE, S. 2014. Are wildlife documentaries contributing to environmental ignorance. Australian Broadcasting Company.

RICHARDS, M. 2014. The Wildlife Docusoap :A New Ethical Practice for Wildlife Documentary? 15, 321-335.