Fact Checking Popular Environmental Documentaries

The most common thing people share, especially since 2020, is their love for
sitcoms and movies available on OTT platforms. Now it seems like a normal,
typical thing, but the thrill still remains of discovering movies, and gushing about
it with your friends. It’s incredibly crazy as well as mind-blowing how this one
platform has built relationships.

The platform is inclusive of an array of original films, documentaries, shows, and familiar network shows. Thanks to its vast library of fresh content and
easy accessibility across various devices.

(Photo by Mollie Sivaram)

But with everything moving online since 2020, you might have felt the need to
take a social media or screen detox. If you have completed your education, or are
done reading stacks of books, and are looking for something different, then
replace or maybe spare a little time for documentary films – actual interviews with
footage of real people, events, and places. There is nothing wrong or bad about
fiction, but documentaries offer a glimpse into someone else’s reality. They can
add depth to your understanding of various topics, academically or recreationally.

The documentaries can be quite a learning experience. At the same time, not many
filmmakers hold the same values, only a few whose films aim to raise
awareness or call people to action.

A fact is a truth, that verifiable, reliable backbone of the documentarian’s work.
In an era where information is portrayed through the lens of agenda and belief,
truth to a section of society can be heresy to another. Fact-checking has thus
never been as crucial or complex, whether to recapture a floundering public trust
or to provide authenticity to a report.

  • Why is fact-checking important?

As tomorrow’s thinkers, writers, storytellers, and journalists, it is our job to
interpret, gather, and share information with people. The information we claim
as ‘facts’, has the power to cause damage, misunderstandings, and the potential
to change the course of history.

If you plan to get your documentary on Netflix or any other OTT
platforms, they will require strict accountability on your sources and facts.
Here are a few documentaries released on Netflix, that portrayed a type of
thought and idea with the wrong “facts”:

1) Seaspiracy (2021)

As fast as this documentary received the limelight, the sooner it received flak for
getting its facts on fishing wrong. The latest Netflix documentary talks about the
damage that industrial fisheries inflict on the oceans, and questions the
sustainable seafood movement. It discusses why the Dolphin Safe and Marine
Stewardship Council labels may not offer the guarantee consumers
are searching for. Since its arrival, this 90-minute documentary has made its way
trending to Netflix’s Top 10 watch list in various countries. It has been praised by
renowned celebrities like Bryan Adams, the vegan Canadian rock star, who urged
his followers to watch it and stop eating fish. Chris Froome, the seven Grand
Tour-winning British cyclist, and George Monbiot, the environmentalist and
Guardian columnist, who appears in it.

So, of course, when a popular OTT platform channels a documentary focusing on
the threat of destructive fisheries for its subscribers, it’s excellent! The film
comprises all the incriminating evidence and dramatic footage required to make
the point to its audience that industrial fishing is, all around the world, a too
often out-of-control, sometimes criminal enterprise that needs to be reined in
and regulated.

But the documentary did more harm than good. The documentary takes up the impact of industrial fishing on the ocean and undermines it with a wave of misconceptions. It also exerts some questionable interviewing techniques, uses anti-Asian tropes, and blames the very NGOs trying to fix things, not the industrial companies that are actually behind this problem. It twists the narrative to such an extent, that it showcases the only way we
can save ocean life is by turning vegan. Here are a few examples of the facts gone wrong.

The documentary claims that if we continue fishing as we do now, the oceans will be empty by the year 2048. The claim is misinterpreted, and the authors of this research had suggested that by 2048, the entire world’s exploited fish stocks would be so depleted by
fishing that they would produce less than 10 percent of their historically highest
catches.

Yet another misleading claim is that plastic pollution in the oceans consists
primarily of discarded or lost fishing gear. This may have been the case,
particularly in the North Pacific, in the 1980s, where initial studies of marine
debris were carried out. But currently, at least 80% of the plastic in the oceans
comes from what we end up throwing away, like tires, soda bottles, packets of
fast food, etc., while just 20 percent comes from marine sources. Another source of marine debris is abandoned fishing nets. But it’s problematic when filmmakers
attempt to show land-based ocean plastic pollution as trivial.

A blatant mistake is the documentary’s claim that there is no such thing as
sustainable fishing. Though there are innumerable examples of global
unsustainable fishing relying on science and data, well-managed
fisheries also exist. A term is used in fisheries science, known as Maximum
Sustainable Yield (MSY), which influences the maximum catch that can be
sustainably extracted from a fishery.

Another racial problem is that the documentary quite casually uses anti-Asian
tropes to make its points. Every Asian in this movie is portrayed as a villain. Quite a
contrast to the otherwise proudly presented white Western defenders of the
oceans, astride their magnificent ships.

If Seaspiracy has hit an unbiased, and objective chord with you about the ocean
issues, please join an NGO and take action.

2) Cowspiracy

In 2014, Netflix launched a 90-minute documentary, Cowspiracy: The
Sustainability Secret, which was executive-produced by Hollywood actor
Leonardo di Caprio. The documentary focuses on how agriculture is the most
destructive industry in the world today, and is responsible for global warming,
droughts, deforestation, murders of land activists – whatever environmental
calamity you name, the reason is cows. The documentary is so convincing, that
many youths turned to veganism or vegetarianism overnight.

Audiences are fed facts at a fast rate; 4 minutes into the documentary, it
tells how cattle produce more CO2 than the entire transport industry. After
checking that, the meat figure has been acquired by adding up all
greenhouse-gas emissions associated with meat production, including land
clearance, vehicle usage on farms, fertilizer production, and methane emissions,
while the transport figure had only included fossil fuel burning.

Another claim, that it takes 200000 litres of water to make 1 kg of beef. However,
this is not entirely true as cows drink less water, and cleaning stables is not quite that much. It is not directly used by farming cattle. The entire calculation goes like this, on an English pasture with 1000 litre annual rainfall, 1 kg of hay is produced, and since cows need 200 kg of hay to produce a kg of meat, then 200 x 1000 = 200 000. Although large scale animal farming is wasteful, not telling the entire story, and feeding the audience with half-truth, is misleading.

The utilization of herbicide and pesticide is indeed polluting the water. But
saying that cattle eat tons of grain, and a lot of herbicide and pesticide is used to
grow that grain, and that pollutes the water. Therefore the only solution is if
we stopped eating meat completely – seems extremely strange and overly simplistic.

Right from eating fruits that are delivered from the other side of the planet, to
farming cattle and fishing, most modern agriculture is terrible for the environment. to change that, we should change how the system around us works, not just individuals who purchase the heavily subsidized, advertised end product that is sold off through various marketing techniques right in front of our house.

Documentaries are a great way to learn new things and expand your knowledge, but one should also remember that not everything in a documentary is true. Be objective, think critically about what you are letting yourself learn, and expose yourself to viewpoints different from yours to understand better.

Written by: Edlyn Cardoza

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