Documentary journalism is alive and well, contrary to reports of its early demise. Yes, funding is extremely difficult to obtain, and broadcasts even harder to achieve. Of the hundreds of documentaries made each year, most never get beyond family, friends and the core interested constituencies. But at “P.O.V.,” PBS’s non-fiction showcase, where I am the executive producer, we are seeing more and more documentaries that handily meet the criteria of journalism.
Journalists, like the French with their language, are highly protective of their unique domain. Their job is unusual. The social function journalism fills involves a combination of expertise and trust, and yet, in the end, the outcome is inevitably subjective. There are few hard and fast rules, but many suggestive guidelines. And journalists are constantly refining the definition of their work and patrolling the borders of their practice for interlopers.
Central to determining whether something is or isn’t journalism lie questions about truth, accuracy, motivation and fairness. Print journalism’s relationship to these qualities has a long and pedigreed history. However, journalism done with words and images is relatively new, and deep suspicion remains in many quarters when judging a visually based medium in terms of its journalistic qualities—particularly moving images and, more specifically, images broadcast on television. So deep is the power of images to move us that some believe everything they see on television that is presented as fact. Conversely, knowing the heightened power words and images have to manipulate, some trust in little or nothing they see represented as mainstream news today.
Both responses are extremes, but passions have always run deep when it comes to questions about truth and media—particularly when pictures are involved. Writing about photography only 30 years after its invention, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in a much-quoted 1859 essay, was the first to identify photography’s delicate dance with veracity. “Every conceivable object of Nature and Art will soon scale off its surface for us,” Holmes wrote. “Men will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects as they hunt cattle in South America for their skins and leave the carcasses of little worth.” This is an aggressive image, describing a world where content would always be sacrificed in the search for the most “curious, beautiful and grand” surface.
Holmes’ statement is remarkably prescient. In today’s television journalism, ever-new marketing goals and revenue-generating practices have become the standard by which all similar products are judged. These approaches frequently clash with journalism’s goal to seek out and report informative, meaningful, verifiable stories about the world we live in. Yet surfaces dominate and content suffers daily in the broadcast journalist’s world. And it’s not as if this is an entirely new phenomenon.
Certainly, we can look back on “the good old days” when television news broadcasters worked with journalists on regular, in-depth, well funded productions about important social issues and didn’t expect fact-finding to get mixed up with moneymaking. That era produced such classics as “Harvest of Shame.” Of course, Edward R. Murrow complained of corporate interference in his work in the late 1950’s and early ’60’s, so the tension between journalistic ideals and the reality of daily workplace politics is not new. Nevertheless, a fairly recent, radical shift has been widely noted in both the practice and reception of journalism.
Gone, too, are the days when what is printed is taken as “the truth,” or at least generally believed, and what appears as news on television or radio is actually believed to be news by a skeptical audience. Today’s journalists work under a cloud of public cynicism, pulling extra weight just to convince their audiences that their story is important, truthful and worth devoting time to. They work against the increasing time pressures on Americans, the innumerable media distractions passing as news or its close cousin, infotainment. Beyond the still-thriving “60 Minutes,” broadcast documentary specifically has been relegated to the infinitely cross-linked and cross-promoted human-interest stories on “Dateline,” “20/20,” and other news and magazine shows.
Despite these much decried developments, or perhaps, ironically, because of them, journalism has seen new forms emerge in recent years, forms which attempt to connect with viewers through personal stories and overtly subjective approaches. These new forms don’t raise the same questions or suspicions that the use of “objectivity” as a format invites.
Using this approach, journalists see themselves as active participants, attempting to connect with communities, to rejuvenate a sense of citizenry, to promote the operations of democracy, and even to suggest possible solutions to problems. Some refer to this as public or civic journalism, or journalism with a problem-solving focus. It is within this rubric that many of the point-of-view documentaries about contemporary social issues shown on PBS’s “P.O.V.” find their home.
After 14 years on the air, “P.O.V.” is home to many journalists-turned-filmmakers. They have come to public television, often from commercial media (print and broadcast), for a chance to explore their stories from an explicit perspective, to work over a long period of time—sometimes as long as a decade—and for the chance to have total editorial control.
Through their work, “P.O.V.” showcases much-needed antidotes to the superficiality endemic in so much broadcast media today. The work of two such filmmakers is airing in the “P.O.V.” 2001 series: “Scout’s Honor,” by Tom Shepard, and “In The Light of Reverence,” by Toby McLeod, co-produced by Malinda Maynor. These serve as examples of the kind of carefully crafted films that have expanded the craft of journalism into documentaries so effectively that “P.O.V.” has been able to pioneer new approaches to audience engagement around both their online and on-air broadcasts.
“P.O.V.” was created in recognition of the power that nonfiction film has in promoting civic dialogue and around controversial issues of common concern. Race and identity (“Blacks and Jews,” “Tongues Untied,” “First Person Plural”), health (“The Vanishing Line,” “Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter”), labor (“Roger and Me”), education (“Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary”) are just a small sampling of the spectrum of topics more than 160 films have covered.
“Scout’s Honor” profiles the work of Petaluma, California, Boy Scout Steven Cozza who, at the age of 12, cofounded “Scouting for All,” an organization working to change the stated Boy Scout policy of excluding openly gay members. The PBS broadcast stirred up a protest among several conservative groups adamantly opposed to not only the message of the film but the broadcast itself. People were drawn to protest by the claim that PBS should not be allowed to use taxpayer money to air point-of-view films. If the film isn’t objective, they argued, it must be propaganda. The first is a familiar logic that quickly dead-ends if applied to all of the uses of taxpayer money. And the charge of subjectivity goes to the heart of what is or isn’t journalism.
“P.O.V.” and PBS accepted the film precisely on its merits as a fairly and accurately compiled story. It is a thoroughly researched, well-documented piece, and the filmmaker had approached the Boy Scouts numerous times requesting an interview, but was refused. As Shephard explains, “Because ‘Scout’s Honor’ takes a position does not disqualify it as a piece of journalism. Quite the contrary: [I] took great pains to employ high standards of journalism—rigorous document and archival research, broad coverage of events and subjects, sensitivity to interviewees, special attention to the time necessary to comprehensively tell stories, engaged filmmaker/subject rapport. Ultimately, the test of ‘fairness’ and ‘accuracy’ is in the material; how does the filmmaker present the material he or she researches and collects? Does it fairly represent the positions of the characters who posit that information? Does it honor the integrity of the film’s subjects and events?”
McLeod’s film, “In The Light of Reverence,” takes a different tack. Covering the story of three different locations where Native and non-Native communities are struggling over the use of lands sacred to the Native tribes, he uses journalistic techniques to focus on community and individual responses to the legal, tribal and economic repercussions of these controversies.
Less personality driven than issue-focused, the film nevertheless makes clear its goal of educating non-Natives about Native concerns. Meticulously researched and constructed, McLeod says, “My goal was to report a complex story of clashing world views accurately and fairly. It took 10 years to make the film so it’s obviously different from daily deadline journalism and, of the two sides we portrayed, our commitment to clearly expressing the Native-American point of view might cause some to call it a ‘sympathetic treatment.’ But I feel strongly that it is a piece of journalism.”
Both of these films used personal (and therefore subjective) testimony extensively. More than this, the films overall, because of their emphasis on certain characters or circumstances, support particular interpretations of the events. These techniques draw the viewer in and give them different ways to identify with the issue. Yet this doesn’t destroy their claim as journalism. On the contrary, a point-of-view documentary is an incredibly powerful tool to bring people to stories and experiences they would otherwise never be exposed to, in ways that not only interest them intellectually but move them emotionally. Often people reexamine assumptions and attitudes in response to seeing these films.
At “P.O.V.,” we encourage viewer response through online dialogues, specially produced Web sites, and a toll-free number. Our broadcasts have resulted in tremendous outpourings of sympathy for subjects of a film, offers of resources, in-depth discussions, and activities in response to the issues portrayed. We’ve also seen how discerning viewers are when assessing whether a film is fair and accurate. While not every “P.O.V.” is journalism, or made by a journalist, the films—exploring the many and complex truths of our lives—generate a tremendous response and illustrate powerful and convincing arguments for keeping documentary journalism as a mainstay in American media.
Cara Mertes is executive producer of “P.O.V.,” a project of American Documentary, Inc. Mertes is also an award-winning producer/director and has published in several media journals. She is a contributing editor to The Independent.