In defense of documentaries as journalism

“Documentaries aren’t journalism, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” read the headline of an article published in October by Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday. “The journalist’s mission is to share information, whereas the filmmaker’s mission is to elicit emotion.” As a professor in a school of journalism that prides itself on teaching compelling storytelling and accurate fact-gathering, this struck me as a spurious distinction.  

Whatever their medium, reporters aren’t scribes—they gather and synthesize facts, choose quotes, decide what context is most relevant, and unfold a story to create meaning. Journalism has evolved beyond a very narrow concept of “objectivity” to include notions of fairness and inclusivity, ideas that have fed a diversity of voices in the current age of documentary. By Hornaday’s logic, her own work as a critic wouldn’t count as journalism, since it incorporates opinion. Nor would about half the articles in any newspaper. Saying all documentaries aren’t journalism is akin to saying longform magazine writers aren’t journalists.

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Still, Hornaday’s critique highlights a debate that has raged within the documentary filmmaking community since the form emerged nearly a hundred years ago: What is “truth”? And when capturing it, what role should filmmakers play? Revisiting the history of the modern documentary in the United States may shed some light.

In 1955, Edward R. Murrow was its undisputed king. Murrow had pioneered the TV news documentary, and he was the host of the popular and critically praised series See It Now. But that year, a former Life magazine photographer named Robert Drew, on a yearlong Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, initiated a revolution in the documentary form.  

At Harvard, Drew wrote in a 2001 issue of Nieman Reports, “I focused on two questions: Why are documentaries so dull? What would it take for them to become gripping and exciting?” Murrow’s producers, Drew realized, were making what he called “lectures with pictures”: the audio told the story, but without it, the visuals had no coherence. Hoping to find ways to make viewers experience the news, Drew began studying other narrative forms—plays, novels, short stories—and concluded that what builds interest and feeling on television is dramatic logic: “As the power of the drama builds, viewers respond emotionally as well as intellectually.”

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Drew understood that enhancing the impact and immediacy of documentary storytelling would require cameras to become mobile. In the late 1950s, he and the British filmmaker Richard Leacock, working with other future legends such as D. A. Pennebaker and Al and David Maysles, developed a portable camera that could record picture separately from audio, a significant breakthrough. In 1960, Drew got the chance to apply his new technology to a major national subject. That year, he persuaded Democratic presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey to follow them as they slugged out a tough political fight in Wisconsin. The result, the hour-long documentary Primary, established a new visual vocabulary for documentaries and is widely considered the beginning of American cinema verité.

Drew transformed the dry documentary news of Edward R. Murrow into a medium for narrative filmmaking. Within CBS, Murrow’s producers took advantage of the new technology to make Harvest of Shame, about migrant workers in Florida. Although considered a benchmark of investigative journalism in 1960, it would now be considered advocacy. Meanwhile, Maysles, Pennebaker, and others were developing a language that bridged reality and cinema, providing the substance for Hornaday’s assertion. But while they proved that documentaries can sway audiences in ways print journalism can’t, that doesn’t mean they’re any less journalism.

I’m a former network news producer, so I understand the position of Hornaday and others. The revolutions in both technology and newsrooms over the past 30 years have changed the field. Many newsrooms have contracted, putting investigative journalists out of the business; and the news networks produce investigative documentaries only sporadically. Meanwhile, access to filmmaking technology has “democratized” the documentary form, opening it up to often untrained practitioners.

In some cases, filmmakers intentionally cross the line in ways that can be confusing to audiences. For instance, in 2004, Robert Houston and Robert Hudson’s Mighty Times: The Children’s March, a documentary short about a pivotal moment of the civil rights movement in 1963, faked archival footage using child actors. More recently, Liz Garbus’s 2015 film What Happened, Miss Simone? inserted footage of a child actor playing eight-year-old Nina Simone so skillfully that it could barely be distinguished from the actual archival material that preceded and followed.

Now, as an independent documentarian, I have no access to the infrastructure of a network—their standards and practices, their fact-checking procedures, the many discussions with editors over linguistic nuance. And whereas producers and correspondents are taught to draw lines between their personal and professional lives, I might spend years following a single family, which tends to blur boundaries. While my reporting background has trained me to seek out various stakeholders in a story and maintain fairness, some independent filmmakers seem perplexed when I raise these issues.

“If a film purports to be journalistic, it’s got to stand up to scrutiny,” says Simon Kilmurry, a former executive producer of PBS’ POV and the executive director of the International Documentary Association. Kilmurry recently started the Enterprise Documentary Fund, with money from the MacArthur Foundation, to support filmmakers who engage in journalistic practices. To run it, he hired Carrie Lozano, a veteran of the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. In its three years of existence, the fund has supported 35 films, with $1.9 million. Lozano says the fund emphasizes fairness in its conversations with filmmakers, a mission Lozano sees as especially important given the current public antagonism toward journalism. “Films can have a point of view but still be factual,” she says.

For most documentarians, cinematic technique becomes another way to convey information. Diana Jean Schemo, a 13-year veteran of The New York Times, reiterates Robert Drew’s critique of Murrow by noting that many investigative reporters, who trade in facts and anecdotes, aren’t the best storytellers. Meanwhile, what audiences find intriguing are characters with whom they can empathize. “When I read a piece in the New Yorker that’s written with a certain creative flair, is that not journalism?” asks Kilmurry. “If you make a film beautiful, more people will see it.” Take the recent hit RBG, about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, directed by my colleagues Betsy West and Julie Cohen and coproduced by CNN Films. It’s an example of what the networks can do when they invest in journalistic documentaries—even Hornaday mentions it as a seamless blend of art and journalism.

Some stories—like those about marginalized people who lack the archival and other records upon which traditional documentaries are built—simply require different narrative forms. “When you go into the nonfiction section of the bookstore, there’s history, memoir, reportage,” says Thom Powers, artistic director of the documentary festival DOC NYC, which screened over 250 documentaries earlier this month. “Documentary is the same way.”

Schemo, who is the executive editor of the investigative-journalism consortium 100Reporters and founder of the Double Exposure Film Festival, which highlights investigative reporting in film, thinks filmmakers have a lot to teach investigative reporters. She cites A Woman Captured, the story of a woman forced into slavery, which The Guardian called “one of the boldest investigative films of recent years.” Its director, Bernadett Tuza-Ritter, filmed only close-up shots of her subject, Marish: off-camera voices of her exploiters provide context, while the film itself details the mental and physical exhaustion of slavery.

Tuza-Ritter is transparent about having paid for access to her subject, and also about the role she plays in Marish’s eventual escape. No mainstream journalist would have done such a thing, but then no mainstream journalist could have given audiences such a direct experience of the captured woman’s despair as she futilely seeks help. The film is a perfect example of the camera’s unique capacity to observe people’s lives at crucial moments. Like all works of journalism, it offers a form of truth—the kind, as Robert Drew described, “that can only be gotten by personal experience.”

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June Cross is a professor and founder of the documentary specialization at Columbia Journalism School.