Video, podcast, and summary: “Documentaries, Journalism, and the Future of Reality-Based Storytelling”


About the Talk

Documentary and journalism have a complicated relationship. They share commitments to reality-based storytelling, yet have distinctive legacies and institutional histories. They share technologies, vocabularies and modes of address, yet have different notions of time, from the ‘now’ of breaking news to the ‘timeless’ status of classic documentaries. At a moment when the Internet has emerged as a platform common to print and broadcast journalism as well as new forms of interactive and participatory documentary, complication seems more like confusion. One might try to clarify the situation by disambiguating these genres, solidifying their boundaries. We seek instead to make productive use of the situation by taking advantage of their commonalities, finding ways to re-invent and re-invigorate both documentary and journalism, in the process expanding their audiences and enhancing their relevance. Documentaries have demonstrated the advantages of synergistic thinking, finding a new place and new publics through digital journalism portals. But what can new forms of documentary contribute back to journalism? To answer that question, we have to think critically and creatively about the affordances of these different traditions in light of their new ecosystem.


William Uricchio began the evening’s discussion by stating that, while documentary films and journalism share a lot of the same concerns, there are crucial differences that shape the way each side communicates with the public. Uricchio used the introduction of newsreels as an example. By the mid-1920s, both newsreels and documentary film were established media forms, and with these forms came “disdain from each for the other.” People in the news claimed that documentary film was “partial and creative in all the wrong ways”; documentary makers said that newsreels were “quick and ephemeral,” resulting in “news at its most reduced.”  

William Uricchio

William Uricchio

Today, documentary film and journalism have their own established rules; Uricchio noted that they are even studied in different departments within MIT.  He argued, however, that journalism has “undulated” in its conventions over the last century. For example, journalism hasn’t always required the standard of impartiality that we expect today. In both fields, the idea of the audience has evolved from “the mass” or “the crowd” at the beginning of the 20th century, to a body of citizens, consumers, or collaborators.  “Truths that we think are self evident in both domains,” Uricchio explained, “are actually culturally contingent.”

Documentary filmmakers and journalists have continually questioned how information about the world should be organized.  Uricchio observed that since the 1840s, wire services have communicated world events to journalistic organizations that would vet it and translate the content for a public audience. Today, we have to build aggregators and algorithms to organize the abundance of information.

The internet has drastically shifted the way that audiences consume media. Likewise, the people driving media institutions are from a very different generation than the people consuming media. Uricchio posed a number of questions that documentary filmmakers and journalists face today: How will these fields hold onto strategies that work, and rethink others that don’t? How can journalists and documentarians take advantage of the web as a platform? How can they use new and emerging tools and strategies, such as wearable technology, location data, and 3D technologies, in news and documentary film?

With those questions in mind, Uricchio turned the conversation over to the speakers. Documentary director Katerina Cizek explained that she began her career as a journalist, and yet, she doesn’t sit “comfortably in any category.” Instead, she works across many media platforms. The themes behind her work define it most accurately: history, social justice, and working with audiences as participants.

Cizek discussed her multi-year documentary series Highrise, a project that won an International Digital Emmy for Nonfiction in 2011. The series investigates life in residential skyscrapers. Cizek met fellow panelist Jason Spingarn-Koff at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto: “I met Jason and [he] said: ‘New York City, New York Times, high rises…what do you think?’” They began a series of conversations to flesh out the film concept and how the Times might be able to incorporate the project.

Jason Spingarn-Koff

Jason Spingarn-Koff

Next, Spingarn-Koff discussed Op-Docs, the Times’ series of short opinion documentary videos. Op-Docs is an extension of the newspaper’s op-ed section: it provides a platform for independent filmmakers from all over the world. Spingarn-Koff noticed that short-form linear documentary film has found its place in the section, while interactive film is less common. Highrise is one of the few interactive projects that has been successful. Spingarn-Koff attributes its success to his constant communication with Cizek.

Raney Aronson addresses the tension between documentary film and journalism in her work on PBS’s FRONTLINE series. Aronson explained that although FRONTLINE is a documentary film series, the biggest change for the series in recent years has been journalistic. “People are filming current events that we never would have had access to before,” she said, citing the atrocities in Syria and Iraq as an example. Last spring, FRONTLINE curated footage found on Youtube of Syrian towns being overtaken by ISIS. FRONTLINE staff ensures that all locally-generated footage is verified by at least three or four people from the town who also witnessed the event. “Local reporters are the people we rely on the most in these kinds of situations,” she said.

Francesca Panetta

Francesca Panetta

Uricchio went on to suggest that there is far greater overlap between journalism and documentary film in the United Kingdom, and asked Francesca Panetta to comment on this idea. Panetta replied that long-form feature writing often resembles a documentary already. The Guardian believes that its role should not only be to report on the news; instead, the publication sees long-form journalism and interactive film as part of its mandate. While accurate reporting is necessary, Panetta said, it is “some kind of angle…[that] differentiates The Guardian from agency news.” Recently, the publication restructured its newsroom to reflect the distinction between live and long-form. “Live” (Panetta also refers to it as “short form”) is often produced minute-by-minute, through strategies such as live blogging. On the other hand, long-form and investigative journalism take time to produce.

Uricchio suggested that interactive documentaries afford audiences both short-form and long-form engagement: “You can take a deep dive or you can just get a quick glance at the narrative.” Panetta contended that this isn’t a new concept. “It’s the same thing with newspapers,” she said. People often only read the first few sentences or paragraphs of an article. “We [browse] things and [make] our own narratives.”

Uricchio asked the panelists to speak about the new technologies and techniques they are working with or believe will become increasingly important. In response, Cizek mentioned the tension between interactivity and immersion. How should filmmakers negotiate between the two? Can a filmmaker immerse his or her audience if they are aware of their interactions and choices?

Uricchio suggested that “process-based” stories do well as games. Aronson agreed: “I think anything that is explanatory does well on a game platform.” She sees games as having the potential to engage and educate a citizenry.

Panetta then addressed one negative aspect of working with new technologies.  Technology is constantly evolving, so there’s a risk that “your very beautiful projects [could] become obsolete in two years.” She observed that it’s important for filmmakers and journalists working on new media projects to consider the long-term when developing projects. “We don’t really think about the life of these things because we want to use the newest thing.”

Uricchio then opened the conversation to questions from the audience. James Paradis, a Professor in Comparative Media Studies/Writing, asked the panelists to discuss their consideration of the audience. “The audience is the great unknown,” he said. “How do you think of them in crafting the work? And second, with interactivity, how does the audience shift?”

Aronson responded that FRONTLINE’s audience is “very unusual”: they still have a vital broadcast following, with millions every week watching in real time. “Digitally, our audience is much younger,” she continued. “They come to us and do very different things than our TV audience; they fund us and they interact with us online.” In order to reach their new audience, FRONTLINE now publishes content to the web daily instead of waiting to release longer films. “There’s a myth that people watch the whole thing in their living rooms: we don’t know what people are doing…they could be getting a coffee or something. But online we’ve seen people watch for a long time.”

Katerina Cizek

Katerina Cizek

Cizek has noticed similar patterns in her work for the National Film Board of Canada. Her organization has begun to mine its 75-year history, uncovering old videos and streaming them online. “We find that the completion [watch] rates for these long-form films are phenomenal,” she explained. “People watch for a long time online.” For interactive works, the initial audiences tend to be early adopters—people who are interested in the technology first and foremost. She cited one tweet, however, that best represents how the NFB’s audience reacts to the more experimental pieces: “I came for the technology and stayed for the story.”

Sean Flynn, a graduate student in Comparative Media Studies, asked the panelists whether they have experienced resistance within their organizations to the “more untested” interactive material. At The Guardian, Panetta has noticed a “kind of confusion about what these [interactive projects] are.” She noted that it can be difficult to get a journalist to understand that it might take six months to produce a non-linear, interactive project. It isn’t uncommon for staff at The Guardian to want to be involved in these new, novel projects, “but,” Panetta explained, “they don’t really understand what they are.”

Panetta also talked about another common criticism of interactive projects: cost. “An argument against this kind of work is that they’re really expensive to produce.” But, she countered, traditional journalism is also expensive.

A third audience member asked about the metrics that organizations use to measure impact of new media stories. Uricchio quipped, “That’s the $64 thousand dollar question.” For Panetta, page views are not the best measure of a project’s success. “The Guardian knows that if they want hits, a kitten gallery will do it,” she said. Rather than analytics, a marker of success is how these projects are received by their peers. “But most of all,” she explained, “it’s the subjective question of whether we think we told compelling stories.”

Desi Gonzalez

About Desi Gonzalez

A researcher, writer, educator, and media maker, Desi Gonzalez studies the potential of digital media to encourage meaningful engagement with the arts. Her research investigates how change and innovation occur in cultural institutions, specifically focusing on an emerging wave of initiatives in art museums that invite visitors and artists to create with new technologies. At MIT's HyperStudio, she worked on the design and evaluation of tools dedicated to supporting research and learning in the humanities, including an art discovery mobile app and a collaborative annotation platform. Before coming to MIT, Desi spent a year as a Kress Fellow at the Museum of Modern Art developing educational materials such as wall texts, audio tours, games, websites, and the interactive learning space MoMA Art Lab: Movement. Prior to that, she managed and wrote texts for the Whitney Museum of American Art's website for young artists, For Kids. Puerto Rico-born and Maryland-raised, Desi graduated from Emory University with majors in art history and linguistics. She writes for various culture publications about art, language, feminism, and occasionally the intersection of all three. In her spare time, she’s probably eating dessert. Thesis: Museum Making: Creating with New Technologies in Art Museums


Share this Post