News & Notes

What journalists and documentary filmmakers can learn from one another

by Margaret Looney

With web-native multimedia features and interactive elements permeating both journalism and documentary filmmaking, two crafts that were once distinct are beginning to blur.

Experts from both fields met to discuss the subtle differences between these types of storytelling and what the fields can learn from one another at a recent Women in Film and Video meetup in Washington, D.C.

Rick Young, producer for PBS’s Frontline, said he believes the main difference between documentary-making and journalism comes down to editorial process.

Documentary filmmakers often go it alone, either taking on films as side projects or independently producing films on their own schedules. In journalism, there’s an editor who sometimes limits that creative freedom, but who also adds structure and accountability.

“That editorial process is constantly testing you, the strength of the story and the credibility of your sources, but most importantly it’s testing the smartness of your ideas,” Young said.

Judith Dwan Hallet, documentary producer, has worked jointly with journalists and filmmakers on various projects, and says she sees them learn from one another.

“Filmmakers learned how to write in a succinct and precise manner, how not to be in love with every visual scene and how to cut down their pieces, getting to the essence of a story,” she said. “Journalists learned how to tell a story visually and emotionally with strong character development. They learned to let the story breathe…and place more importance on the people in the stories.”

But despite the ability to benefit from exposure to one another’s craft, “there are different cultures and beliefs about each other that are actually inaccurate,” said Patricia Aufderheide, director of American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact (CMSI).

For instance, documentarians will say that they’re not journalists because they tell artful stories, Aufderheide said, whereas journalists are often believed to just report the facts.

Journalists also have a code of ethics to fall back on, whereas documentarians don’t have clear guidelines, but in a CMSI report Honest Truths, Aufderheide studied the documentary filmmaker’s approach to ethics and didn’t find significant differences in how the two fields handle ethical issues.

And then there’s the journalism tradition of showing more than one side of a story. Documentarians often don’t take this approach, since many films establish a point of view.

Alicia Shepard, former National Public Radio ombudsman, said newsrooms are also starting to stray from this practice, especially on practical social issues. For example, Shepard said NPR decided to take the stance that climate changes exists, while some news outlets still made sure climate change stories included the perspective of climate-change deniers.

But Young countered that seeking two points of view can be a positive feature in either craft, because it adds a dramatic tension, complexity and nuance that’s inherently more compelling, he said. “It’s the gray that makes it interesting.”

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